This is Science

Gene Wilder goes MadScience has brought us wondrous things. It is responsible for the computer you use to read this blog, and it is responsible for the light over your head and the electricity that powers your equipment. Too numerous to count, the benefits of science can not be overlooked.

Yet I often cringe and curse at the coldness, the icy logic of science that more and more often seems to me horrific and brutish. Take for example this recent discovery of a giant squid in its native habitat. I perfectly understand why scientists are interested in such a creature. But if you read the article, you will discover how they lured the giant squid with baited hooks and “observed” it for more than four hours while the poor creature struggled to get itself free, eventually leaving one of its arms behind.

Now, let’s change the characters around for a moment. You may remember the story of the hiker who became stuck under a rock and had to cut off his own arm with a pocketknife to escape. Could you imagine this scenario happening with an observer just a few feet away “watching” the man struggle with life and death for hours, doing nothing to help, until he cut his limb off to flee?

We watched a creature suffer for hours, all for “science.”

We infect rodents and simians with horrific diseases. We drop cats from great heights to their death to test the limits of their agility. The best and brightest minds of our generation and of those past use their talents to build missles, bioweapons, things that kill. All in the name of “science.”

Why is it that science, more often than not, has no heart? Is it something inbred in the culture of science that says heart has no place in the pursuit of “scientific truth”?

A recent article in New Scientist relayed an interview with John Templeton who said the following: “Science creates vast power rapidly. Sixty years ago it was nuclear bombs; now it’s bioweapons. Along the way, science and technology have created vast advances in useful things that are a great blessing. The amount of practical progress I have seen in my 92 years is so vast as to be almost unbelievable. But science does not itself create “stewardship” — the wisdom and capability to direct power towards beneficient ends and to prevent it from serving malevolent ends. To invest in advancing power without investing in stewardship is folly.”

If it’s “unscientific” to have compassion for a suffering being, then so be it. I’ll choose compassion over science any day. My knowledge of the furtive giant squid can wait until another, future day, when I can watch it peacefully, and without cutting off its limb.

5 Replies to “This is Science”

  1. I have to disagree with most of today’s blog, Matt. Fundamentally, science is a *process*, a methodology used to try to understand the universe. Science is no more “cold” than reading is cold. One can read a dictionary (“how cold and soulless reading is”) or a love poem (“how warm and romantic reading is”). Man can use the scientific method to experiment on concentration camp prisoners (“how barbaric and monstrous science is”) or to explore the Martian terrain (“how wondrous and inspirational science is”). I would argue that science and morality are independent concepts–you don’t have to choose between them; you can have both. In other words, the scientific method isn’t to blame for the torture of that squid; the fault lies with the immoral human being conducting the experiment.

  2. I agree completely with your statements, Dave. But my comments have more to do with the “culture” of science than science itself. (Science is wonderful). True, humans make the decisions, and they can choose to be moral or not, but that line becomes awfully complicated, say, when we infect monkeys with ebola, induce cancer, and other horrors in them just to “save a human life.” I’m not a PETA freak, but I think that science has progressed much faster than it’s morals have, and without that counterbalance you run the risk of being “cold” and inhumane in pursuit of this “truth.” Notice how no mention in the article was made of the squid’s suffering. It’s all about what is and what’s not in your consciousness.

  3. Matt,

    Here’s my main thought: what the hell was I doing away so long?!? I just took a gander at your blog today and I just want to say another really good piece of writing.

    I’d just like to add one more thing to the discussion if I can (and I pretty much agree with everything you said): My problem has always been that humans are so “speciecentric” (?) Just because we (believe we) have a higher level of consciousness, I think we think it justifies all the actions we take on this planet. From deciding what living creature is okay to eat, to dictating who controls someone’s right to live or die, to controlling a squid’s freedom for our curiousity, humankind feels their existence trumps all others.

    To me, we’re all cast from that same universal material and we’re not the superior for it just because it’s arranged in a way in which it allows us to take the most advantage. How about a little more respect for everything else?

    I know I’ve probably stated the obvious but that’s what I’m here for. Thanks for yet another thoughtful topic and bit of writing.

    I am so back on this blog!


  4. You raise some very intriguing questions, Matt, but I have to agree with Evil David that science is morally neutral, reflecting only the values of its practitioners. There is heartlessness to be found in a great many human endeavors. John Milton, one of the most emotionally sensitive poets of all time, was a bastard to his own children. Mother Theresa, everyone’s poster child for caring, denied anasthesia to her own patients for fear of “coddling” them. Would you dismiss both poetry and religion as essentially heartless because of this? People behave in inhumane ways by drawing often self-serving distinctions between themselves and their victims. To the scientists torturing that squid, the squid was a lesser being. Perhaps they were immoral in behaving this way, but don’t we all make these distinctions all the time? How do we feel when the exterminator comes to rain apocalypse on our roach population? How do we feel about the living conditions and butchering circumstances of the chickens we eat, or the thousands (millions?) of species annihilated through agriculture? If we were to bring equal compassion to all creatures of this earth, we’d find ourselves incapable of living. That, I think, is the brutal truth underlying our existence on this planet. And, while it may make us feel better to wield the cudgel of moral outrage at the more obvious examples of pain infliction, it doesn’t erase that fundamental truth.

  5. — Lauren, you’re dead-on as usual.
    — Lou a.k.a. “Universal Matter”-Guy, you’re very funny. You had to be joking…right?
    — Matt, thanks for another great blog.

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