Riffed by Dr. Geek
from an idea by Vitriol


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science and us (redux)

Since botanologia was kind enough to write detailed comments in my guestbook on my rant about science and non-science last week, it has been my attention for the last few days to write a reply. Truth was, I was being polemic and there is another side to my feelings on the subject that I do need to address. Before I do that though, something happened recently that will help understand where I really stand on whether or not science really matters.

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with my personal workstation in my office here at home. It is, in many ways, Frankencomputer. I have re-built it. I have the technology. It is my creation... as much as a device can be that is assembled from off the shelf parts instead of buying a pre-assembled unit from a large manufacturer. I do this because it allows me to control exactly what hardware is inside it (always useful when dual booting Windows XP and FreeBSD on the same machine) and it allows me to upgrade to a better than average machine every few years by buying some new parts and reusing others. Yeah, I know. I'm the geek equivalent of that gear head brother who is always rebuilding cars out the garage. So sue me. This is Dr. Geek's Laboratory after all. That says a lot right there.

Anyway, one problem with taking the Frankencomputer approach to home PC creation is that there is no friendly neighborhood tech support for it. If there is a problem, I'm the one who has to fix it. This inevitably means a certain amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth from time to time. In the last year, there have been two times when I just wanted to throw it out the window. The first was last Christmas, when I got myself a CD RW drive and installed it (the first two didn't work at ALL, and I had to move to a completely different brand.) The second was last May, when I got myself a new motherboard and processor, and found I needed to reinstall Windows XP completely.

I recently vowed to myself that there would be no messing around with computers for this holiday season, but, found yesterday that this may not be possible. My computer locked up yesterday morning and then suddenly reset itself after the main hard disk started making a clicking noise. That clicking noise almost gave me a heart attack; it generally signifies that the disk heads are sweeping around VERY fast. I've heard computer disks make that noise and never work again. Fortunately, the disk did survive (for the moment *fingers crossed*) and I suspect the drive controller is the problem (which is incorrect, see below) -- it's been a bit flaky for the last year or so. Still, I'll be walking around on egg shells for a while until I get this sorted out.

I was talking about this at work with a colleague, and we both believe that working with computers is philosophically like practicing a spirit-based religion like voodoo or Shinto (he's a Shinto practicioner himself.) When something goes wrong with a computer, we have to make a ritual sacrifice. There are strict ritual incantations, and rigid formulas that must be observed. Regarding my problems, we discussed placing a small disk of salt atop my computer because Shinto holds that salt chases away evil spirits. I myself felt like I should sacrifice a chicken, though only as a couple dozen authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings (which as in ancient Egypt, would be consumed by the priests after the spirits had consumed their essence).

So, My ultimate point is that I find it very telling that when it comes to things technical in my own life, my own first instinct is to see behavior in religious terms.

Now, the ever-wonderful botanologia had this to say about my last entry:

...I would tentatively like to point out a few things though: I think it is far too easy to draw a swift dichotomy between science and irrationality. Certainly there are other forms of knowledge (such as those offered in the humanities) that don't neatly fit into either category yet are still relevant forms of knowledge. Second, yes there is currently a resurgence of fundementalism and pseudo-science, but I don't think this harkens the death knell of the scientific programme. Remember that at the high of the Enlightenment came the popular appeal of Mesmer. The Evolutionary Synthesis of the early 20th century was preceded by the Scopes Monkey Trial. These things come and go in phases. Which, in my cynical opinion, may be for the best. As a culture, I think we box ourselves in when we put an almost religious faith and wholehearted trust in Science (capital s). Science can solve a lot of real life problems, but it alone cannot suss the human condition, nor should it be burdened with that responsibility. I disagree that you can trace a singminded progressive path from antiquity. Today's scientific programme asks completely different questions than it did even a few hundred years ago. It can't. Perhaps if people are alienated from science today, it is because they expect too much - an accessible, secular, laymen's religion that will spoon feed them an easy reality. And I doubt science will have its Vatican II anytime soon...

The basic point here is well taken. Harkening back to my undergrad days studying History of Science at Rottweiler Puppy Institute (RPI), where we doubtless engaged in pointless and esoteric rivalries with schools like MIT, Caltech, UIUC, Rose-Hullman, and CoMputerU, I am aware that the reality of the history of science is closely tied to theories of the occult, mysticism, and alchemy as much as anything else. Science has always put up a brave front where rationality and logic are concerned, but, given Sir Isaac Newton's private penchants for occult numerology, or Johannes Keplers obsessions with perfect platonic shapes, even its greatest practicioners have been generally been as caught up in the often weird ideas of their times as much as anyone else. Even in the more modern period of the 20th Century, great scientific thinkers have not resisted the inclination to combine religious and scientific language, as with Einstein's famous quote about quantum theory that "God does not play dice with the Universe."

I also agree that a single-minded belief in Science is unhealthy, if only because Science has been wrong so much. One need only look at the amount of mainstream research into craniology in the 19th Century that lead to so many of the eugenic theories of the 20th Century (with the attendant social consequences, such as, say, the Holocaust), which were all discredited as utter trash by studies in the genetic variation in the early 21st century. There are too many scientists with philosophical and ideological axes to grind. I sometimes think that it is only pure luck that many of them have stumbled across ideas that we consider to be still worthy of repute today.

I would also wholeheartedly agree that science alone cannot encompass the whole of the human experience by itself. If anything, I think humanity needs a higher sense of religious experience and basic compassion more than it ever has before. The last six or so centuries have been rather devastating to the Christian world view of Europe: we have gone from being God's special creation on a planet at the center of the Universe, to being the evolved descendant of an ape on an insignificant planet in the outer backwater of an unremarkable galaxy in an ever-expanding Universe that will likely end up as a cold empty void. Finding something of comfort in that shift in world view is difficult, given the ego of the human species. Some sense of spiritual transcendence is required, I think, to help deal with it. Ever-rational existentialism offers too little comfort for many, it seems.

I think that much of the current disconnect between between the scientific community and popular culture has much to do with the laziness and specialization of the scientists themselves. As scientific reasoning finally seemed to claim victory in the mid-20th century, science as an ideology finally felt secure in its place among the hearts and minds of the populace. Scientists therefore ceased being as interested in public policy or popular thought (if they ever were), confident that people would eventually catch on to their way of thinking all by themselves. That is, alas, the frequently repeated mistake of arrogance. It left a vacuum in the area of public discourse that was filled with all sorts of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.

Science also used to be a bit easier. My mother made her living as a chemist before deciding to become a homemaker, and was recently given a book about the history of chemistry compiled in the late 1920's. In reading it, she was struck at the enormity of the advances in the three decades between the writing of that book and the time she went to college. There was a lot less to know 100 years ago, and getting up to speed on science was something that didn't necessarily require 4-6 years of University work. The fact that the average high school student today is probably better educated in some respects than some University-educated students of the 19th century in science is a very clear indicator of how far things have come along.

Epilogue: Part of the reason for the delay in this entry was that the hard disk I mentioned at the start of this rant did indeed go bad. Much of my energy since then has been directed toward mirroring the data onto another disk. The silver lining of it all: the disk is still under warranty and will be exchanged.

said drgeek on 2003-11-17 at 4:07 p.m.


The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond

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