When Science Doesn’t Make Things All Better

Sergey Nivens / (Shutterstock.com)
Sergey Nivens / (Shutterstock.com)

You know what kids seem to really be into these days? Science.

If you’re buddies with Millennials, you’ve probably noticed shared posts from pages such as “Science is Awesome” and “Science Memes” gumming up your Facebook feed. Among Gen Y cohorts, TV eggheads such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are basically canonized saints, while Cosmos maestro Seth MacFarlane gleefully tells Forbes that “resistance to science” should be punished by state-sanctioned denial of medicine. I’d imagine that Reddit’s atheist community is tickled pink.

With roughly a third of US Millennials self-reporting as irreligious, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this sudden interest—and possibly even worship—of science as an abstract ideal is going on. Today’s ultra-inclusive youths view old-timey religion as a relic of backward conservatism—filled to the brim with racist, sexist, and anti-gay sentiment—and view science as the progressive Weltanschauung response.

And maybe these kids are right. After all, science has given us penicillin and the Internet and medical technologies that have extended the human lifespan by a good 30 years over a single century. Meanwhile, religion has given us wars and witch burnings and genital-mutilation rituals. With the dichotomy framed this way, it’s hard to not envision “science” as the good guy in the equation.

The big problem is that we’re championing science AS that inherently positive abstraction instead of looking at it as a neutral political ideology. It’s a two-way street: If religion can be a social policy weapon, so can other loosely defined ideologies.

And science is an ideology, no matter how you slice it. You can give me a spiel about the scientific method until the cows come home, but the reality remains that “science” is just as much an identity-politics mechanism as it is a systematic procedure.

And before you start pounding out angry emails accusing me of being a Flat Earther, I’m actually a nontheist myself—albeit one of the rare non-practicing, apolitical ones.

Perhaps science, much like religion, is a positive force in theory. Whereas the major world religions seek to explain existence through the metaphysical, science seeks to do the same thing through the observable and the mathematically derived. Both throw out conjecture about how things came to be, and religion takes it a step further and stipulates a cosmological reason for existence. Science, ideally, can only take stabs at the provable, so biologists and astronomers—bound by their own dogma—are supposedly prohibited from espousing scientific responses to what is undoubtedly humanity’s most perplexing question: Why are we here?

Something tells me politically motivated, science-loving atheists have always been envious of that. No matter how much data they get and how many subatomic particles they uncover, they can never touch upon the enigmas that religion—rightly or wrongly—claims to answer in full. The best they can muster is that the Big Bang is responsible for all the matter in the universe now. Anything before that—particularly that little humdinger about how the pre-Big Bang matter got there in the first place—can only be answered with a shrugged shoulder.

When celebrating science as an innate good for humanity, I think we tend to neglect humanity’s staggering knowledge deficits. We can’t figure out why autism happens or even why ice is slippery, so I doubt we’ll ever truly figure out things such as quantum physics or dark matter. And that’s completely discounting an even graver issue: that maybe, science can be applied just as easily—and commonly—for evil purposes as it can for beneficial ones.

I’m not sure I would automatically equate science with progress, and for that matter, I wouldn’t exactly use “progress” as a synonym for “good.” Sometime in the Atomic Age, we decided that advances in technology and biomedicine alone would lead to a great utopian society, which—a good 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—I’m hesitant to say we’ve created for ourselves.

Sure, we have some neat consumer-grade applications which even 10 years ago would’ve been considered scientifically impossible. But somewhere amid all of our smartphones, tablets, plasma-screen televisions, and GPS devices, we overlook how our general quality of life has declined dramatically since the WiFi revolution. We have YouTube and Facebook and Xbox Live, which is cool and all, but all of these astounding technological devices haven’t made us any more upwardly mobile than we were during the heyday of cathode-ray boob tubes. A sixth of the country is on food stamps, nearly half of US families live in either low-income or impoverished households, and somehow—during one of the most heinous recessions in modern history—we’ve still found a way to get even fatter as a nation. The Internet revolutionized commerce and communication, but over the last five years? Outside of giving us our much needed virtual bread and circuses, it really hasn’t done much at all to improve the American citizens’ physical well-being.

Biomedicine, though, is where things get really screwy. More than a decade after mapping out the human genome, we’re still decades away from even remotely approaching breakthroughs against diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. We’ve (allegedly) cloned human tissue and (supposedly) created synthetic body parts out of stem cells, but our overall life expectancies seem to have become static—if not on the decline—after a good 100 years of surging health improvements. And the medical breakthroughs that actually HAVE benefited humanity the most over the last century continue to be savaged by critics on the right (birth control) and the left (genetically modified food).

Which brings me to this idea called “creative destruction.” Science, and definitely technology, are considered forces that generate new opportunities while simultaneously eliminating several older practices. Usually when people talk about creative destruction, they talk about its impact on systems and things: The advent of the DVD, for example, created a new media format and market while simultaneously destroying an older media format and its market. Oddly, we never seem to talk about how such acts of “creative destruction” tend to destroy people, too, with newfangled tech eliminating scores of laborers. Advances in farming technology and crop engineering made most agriculture jobs obsolete, while robotics and computers have now made most manufacturing jobs obsolete. Useless farmers, assemblymen, and machine operators all represent the destructive aspect of progress. With the rise of new technologies and the globalization of the workplace, it’s only a matter of time until most service jobs, and even some symbolic analyst positions, go the way of the dodo.

I keep hearing people yammer on and on about transhuman body modifications, nanotechnology, 3D-printed organs, cold fusion, and hypersonic travel, yet no one ever stops to think: Even if all of this stuff DOES come to fruition, what are the odds that you would ever get to reap the full fruits of such advancements?

If miraculous cures for leukemia or breast cancer were invented tomorrow, do you think whoever owns the patent would start handing out vaccines from the goodness of his or her heart, or is it more likely that the treatment would get sold to the highest bidder, with whichever pharmaceutical manufacturer titan selling it off at intentionally less effective increments and at an obscenely high cost? If microwave solar energy was successfully and safely harnessed, do you think the government would automatically start using it as a low-cost heat and energy source, or would the DOD put a padlock on it and use it solely for the next wave of military drones?

Kids today think an unwavering celebration of science will ultimately lead to them becoming cybernetic organisms—with hybrid animal DNA—living on Martian colonies where hipster-designed space pudding will be our only nourishment need. Yet today’s skein of paranoid federal agencies, profit-hungry pill producers, unscrupulous biotech firms, cutthroat Silicon Valley investors, and hard-hearted HMOs prevent even rudimentary social problems such as homelessness from being affected one iota by “scientific progression.” As consumers, we might get neater gadgets and doodads, and as clientele who can afford it, we might get access to more effective drugs and medical procedures, but other than that? I hardly see how science makes humanity saner, safer, or more conscientious.

Is the pursuit of scientific knowledge a humanistic ideal? We tend to focus on the omelets—polio vaccines and smart cars and things of that nature—but completely forget about all the eggs we had to crack in the process.

The guys intentionally infected with syphilis at Tuskegee can tell you a thing or two about the inherent virtue of scientific advancement. So can the poor Chinese folks who were raped, mangled, dismembered, and depressurized so the Japanese scientists at Unit 731 could expand our communal knowledge of the empirical world.

Along those same lines, I bet those retarded kids fed radioactive oatmeal by MIT nerds sure thought science was worth it. And surely, the scores of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals slaughtered by Dr. Joseph Mengele would likewise agree that science is awesome. Alas, kids today don’t consider such when vaunting science as an innate good. Their definition of what science is, ironically, is an unscientific (and frequently, ill-informed) potpourri of politicized opinions about ecologically and biologically tinted social issues. Watch how quickly they’ll go from being hardline biochemical absolutists on the issue of homosexuality and then turn into staunch social-construct supporters when biological explanations of gender and race come up. They’ll claim to be all about science when it behooves their own perspectives, but their dedication to the true tenets of scientific inquiry are, at best, superficial and at worst, wholly absent.

All of this Millennial claptrap is nothing more than a shallow appreciation of neat visuals and abstruse trivia, with science as a concept existing as little more than a counterpunch to the much detested conservative Christian contingency.

And while I find myself at odds with a near totality of the opinions and beliefs of these “science”-lovin’ whippersnappers, I find myself agreeing with them when they dismiss faith in an invisible higher power as embarrassingly naïve.

I guess they don’t realize that faith in profit-driven technofreaks and politically opportunistic bioscientists is probably just as credulous. TC mark

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