I read a book recently about science in the Romantic age („The Age of Wonder“, Richard Holmes, mainly about England and France) and I was surprised at how much excitement there was all through society at the ideas of new discoveries.
It was fashionable to go to lectures by scientists, some were real stars, government was getting involved, realizing the real usefulness of new discoveries of all kinds.
Sentimentally, I thought: wouldn’t it be nice to live in a society that loved and was proud of science? A society that loved to look to the future, for whom “progress” was not a cynical, threatening word, but one full of sparkling promise, a society that looks to the future and is proud of the achievements of mankind.
A society that distrusts sciences, or one that holds religion or some other belief system higher than science, is oriented toward the past, because that’s where the books and prophets come from that they rely on; they are oriented toward oriented toward non-discovery and non-achievement, because new discovery and new achievement might contradict or supplant the books and prophets they admire; such a society rejects the new, mistrusts the future and is stagnant.
I won’t name names, but take a look around today at societies outside the Western World that rely only solely on the books and prophets of the past (there are a lot of them outside the West) – ask yourself, are they headed toward the future or are they stagnant trying to preserve the past, living in a world that was dead a thousand years ago?
Today, our society, the Western World, is heading in that direction. Our world has gone from a society that admired science and progress to a society that mistrusts and even fears it, even though we all know we only got to where we are today because of science.
It’s trendy when talking about science today to complain about the backwards-looking people of religion – the nuts in Kentucky building an Arc or trying to smuggle “Intelligent Design” into schools. It’s not only in the climate change-deniers who are afraid of losing their jobs. Our mistrust of science goes far, far beyond that. It sits at the very core of liberalism and has become a central part of the mentality of educated, non-religious society.
Mistrust and fear of science is hip, especially among the left:
- It is in the “back to nature” movement, which suggests that industrial farming a which produces enough food to feed the starving world) is basically evil, that nutritional scientists and people who make things like insecticides are really trying to kill us (though they in fact help us produce enough food to feed the starving world);
- It is in the adoration of Eastern and New Age “medicine”: Every time you go to acupuncture or buy a homeopathic “drug”, you are voting for superstition above science;
- It is in the mistrust of nuclear energy, which kills and harms a fraction of the people the world over killed and harmed by coal and other traditional forms of fuel;
- and speaking of nuclear power, we’re never going to get to other planets without it – oh, but wait, the idea of colonizing other planets is also unpopular, because it implies disrespect for our planet, and because we worship nature we could never suggest that may be one day humanity will have needs that this planet can no longer provide for;
- it is in the trend to say “I believe in climate change because 99% of scientists agree that climate change exists” but at the same time to say “I am afraid of genetically-modified foods even though 99% of scientists agree that genetically-modified foods are harmless and beneficial to the world” (and by the way, did you not learn in school that every time you eat a plant you are eating that plant’s DNA – yet, that plant DNA does not change your DNA nor turn you into a plant?);
- it is in fashionable words like “illnesses of civilization”, which implies that civilization itself is the reason people get sick;
- it is in the sentimental belief that all our woes would be cured if we only lived in harmony with nature – but by “nature” we mean flowers and majestic snowy peaks, we don’t mean the part of nature that mankind has battled against for centuries and only now is beginning to win against: Disease, extreme nature, the frailties of the body.
I believe it happened somewhere in the 60s, alongside the revolution of the young against the old at that time. In the 50s it was still fashionable to talk about “progress”, but then the young people, who had profited from the progress of so many years without contributing to it themselves, looked at the downside of progress – pollution, inequality, the dangers of the atomic energy and the a-bomb
– and made the negative side of progress and science their main concern.
Suddenly western medicine was not as pure and good as stone-age shamanism from someplace out there where the average life expectancy is about 35 years old.
Suddenly everything was a conspiracy and all scientists were in the pockets of capitalism, therefore, everything a scientist said was probably a lie – even though they only had to look around them to see that they lived in the best of all worlds, thanks to the very system they were complaining about.
Some of their concerns were valid – atomic energy is certainly dangerous, cars do pollute the air and no, modern medicine cannot cure all our problems. Their activisms helped create better world, with more regulation and more awareness of the downside of any form of progress.
And yes, fear of the atom bomb was a valid fear. I understand the hippies and all their fears, I respect them and am even grateful for the work they did. But what was right then is not necessarily right now. That Nuclear War we were all afraid of – it never happened. Yet, I see no one rejoicing in that fact. I hear no one saying, “We had two giant aggressive nations growling at each other for decades, yet neither of them dropped the bomb – we’re better than we thought. We’re smarter, we’re more responsible, we’re better informed than we imagined.”
Instead, all I hear is the same fear-mongering of the 70s in slightly different variations – but for less reason. The only reason we’re still protesting just like our grandparents protested is because we want to be like them – they taught us it is morally right to complain about the system we profit from and morally wrong to admire it. So that’s what we do, instead of taking a hard look at it and acting according to what is really appropriate today.
Science, like capitalism, though they are the foundations of our society, our health, our success, even our happiness (and yes, we do have a better chance of finding happiness today than our great-grandparents did, trapped on the farm living from hand to mouth), has become immoral in our minds. In the end, that attitude will do more to destroy our society than any atom bomb, any Muslim invasion, any housing bubble, any bad politician.
But now we are beginning to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has become fashionable to protest anything, to vilify everyone, to generally assume that our society is basically bad, that all other societies are basically better, when it is so obviously not true: Life expectancy and health in the West is far superior to anywhere else in the world, as is education, freedoms and rights, possibilities for individual realization, not to mention pleasure and personal development. You really think the monks of Tibet are enlightened and in a far better place than we in the West? Go live with them for a year.
Our fashionable mistrust of science is a self-defeating behavior. It weakens the basis of our success, which is science, it lends credibility to politicians like Trump who pander to anti-science demagogues, it causes us to seek answers in superstition and conspiracies – you know those anti-vaxxers who are trying to bring back Polio? They would not have such big numbers if it wasn’t trendy to talk about “illnesses of civilization”, to disparage “big pharma” who are all about capitalism and are really trying to kill us all, to take poorly of doctors who “only studied medicine in school but aren’t really healers”.
Sure, they are the crazies, but we are the ones who make it trendy for them to say, “Don’t take your children to the doctors, nature will heal them, nature knows what is best for us.” If you ever see anyone talk like that and he/she is wearing glasses, or drives a car, or wearing clothes that has been woven, he/she is a hypocrite, a liar and a fraud.
I was raised a Christian and I respect and love religion and people of the faith. But when I was a kid, no one in my church would ever have disparaged science or imagined that religion can replace science. They knew then what we are forgetting today:
Science is the basis of our society. Everything we have from a superior military to protect us (starting with the bow and arrow) to superior farming methods (starting with the plow) to feed us to a superior education system to learn more about the world we live in to the success of our economy which lives to a large extent from innovation, comes from science.
If politicians abuse these things, change the politicians, not science.
Science is irreplaceable. If we lose science, we lose everything. And the first step to losing science is making it unfashionable.
We have already taken that step.
Eric T. Hansen is American, author, journalist and satirist, lives in Germany and today in Berlin for over 20 years. His books: Planet Germany. Eine Expedition in die Heimat des Hawaii-Toasts) ore Die ängstliche Supermacht: Warum Deutschland endlich erwachsen werden muss and Neuntöter: Thriller.
Penn and Teller get hippies to sign a petition that bans water.