Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tumblers in the Lock of Time, Part Three

Science and Technology
It is the basis of our modern society, and its nemesis. Like the Hindu god Shiva, it destroys with one hand and creates with the other. One moment, the basis of your new-fangled scientific approach is cutting edge, the next moment it’s in the ashheap of history. It also puts forward compelling ideas that tend to get exaggerated and misinterpreted in the hands of politicians and other manipulators. What is the true face of science? The answer is both scarier and more reassuring.

One of the most abused concepts in science is paradigm shift. It's always a favorite of those who want to claim that their new age theory or fundamentalist belief is set to take over.

They use Science's willingness to set aside good, apparently true explanation for those that do better to claim right off the bat, without firm evidence that theirs is the better theory. I like this theory and I believe it more than I do yours, so mine will ultimately triumph, because what I believe is truer.

They fail to understand this one essential fact: science's purpose is to separate prejudices from natural principles. What you believe is truer may influence your choice of explanations, but it does not change what is essentially true about a subject, and only by careful examination and experiment do we determine which is which. Additionally, if we got that right enough, the next paradigm shift will not radically alter our basic conception of things. Newton's gravity was improved upon by Einstein's conception of it, not made utterly obsolescent. Newton's inverse square law still is rather useful for describing gravitational acceleration

Science has not advanced so far as it has by reinventing the wheel everytime it creates a newest theory. New theories must explain the same behavior as old ones, at the same time they explain the behavior that other theory cannot. Many of these so-called "new theories" that folks come up with do not explain all that the old theory could. They claim to be the newer better thing simply to pre-empt the authority of that theory for those who don't want to be bothered with it.

They want the authority, but do not want to obey the means by which it is earned. What has earned science it's power and authority in our world is it's willingness to trade what is believed for what is proven, to use the discrepancy between fact and expectation not as goad to hold on to untenable beliefs, but instead as a sign that reexamination of the theory or the means of testing it are in order. Science is always in a process of refining observations, refining measurements.

Also, though not all scientists make the same explanations, they are expected to rise to standards of proof that tend to weed out the more unsupportable of the claims. In fact, the disagreement isn't pathological in science, but instead quite healthy. No theory is perfect. One of those other theories may be the one that shifts the paradigm. Or, the alternative theories may provide motivation or inspiration for the scientist working on the better theory. Again, what seems like a loophole in the authority of science is in fact another part of what legitimizes its authority.

Granted, in both cases, science must admit uncertainty. But that's precisely it! Good science doesn't claim authority for itself that it cannot substantiate. The motives of the principles of the science are opposite of the motives of the principles of the occult and fundamentalist literalism. They seek to claim superior knowledge regardless of their ability to substantiate what they claim. So does that put science into conflict with study of the unknown or religion? Yes. But only where such studies or religion push into territory where science truly does have legitimate authority.

Unfortunately for these schools of thought, science has progressed far in the last century, so movements dealing with the occult and with literal interpretation of biblical scripture have had to deal with Science's relentless questioning. Because Occultists take mainstream science to be unnecessarily skeptical, and Fundamentalists take science's theories on this world and our species origins to be in contradiction of what they see as the received truth of the bible, these will be conflicts long in the resolution.

The trick is, scientific knowledge often comes to people filtered through any number of sources, with different degrees of reliability. We hear about it through the news, through publications, where agendas, ignorance, and other factors often conspire to present people with inaccurate or sensationalized "science". The news media is especially bad about this, but our schools are not good about this either. Science is presented out of the context of children's everyday lives, and often far behind the times. The planetary orbit model of atoms that you see in typical science books is about a century out of date.
Also, Evolution is poorly represented in textbooks, despite it's intensely integrated relationship with modern biology.

In modern times, the ease of life generated by science and technology has given some people the notion that things can run themselves. In truth, unless we better understand science, and take more responsibility for what's done with it, we are only setting ourselves up for disaster. There are substances in our chemical plants that can kill at extraordinarily low concentrations, and phenomena in our powergrids that can drop us into a blackout in just fractions of a second. In the past few years, we've learned just how high a cost in literal and figurative terms our energy technology has. Cheap oil has turned out to be an illusion in both the political and profit sides of the equation.

Other technologies are on the cusp of arrival. Nanotechnology, even in the limited forms we might see in the next decade, will have profound consequences for us. Hybrid vehicles have already made their presence known, and fuel cells promise to revolutionize portable and fixed power generation. We will definitely see the transition from Standard Definition TV to HDTV, and the consequence of the clearer, wider picture on the way news and world events affect us has not been explored fully.

But regardless, there will be social consequences that follow from the progress of technology. There already have been such consequences from the advances of the last century. Technology has changed the pace and character of how we transport ourselves, how we communicate and how we work. It has changed the way we correspond with one another, and how goods and services change hands. The society that emerges in the next decade will be the unpredictable result of the changes in science and technology. Those who understand the basis of those changes will be better able to work in that world.

Additionally, the changes that the new technology brings will change the necessities that come with regulations, and the means by which they can be wisely applied. We cannot sit still and let the issues of technology coalesce into crises. We need to stand watch and observe how the changes in technology change behaviors and enable them. We should also stand ready to change our laws when the time comes, so we can adjust our need for law and order with society's need for the breathing room to integrate and develop science and technology properly.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at May 5, 2005 2:41 PM