It seems somewhat paradoxical that at the start of a new millennium, during what we proudly refer to as the scientific age, many people still look back to apocalyptic prophecies with such fearsome awe. Think the Y2K bug and the shameless Mayan 2012 “end of the world” propaganda. There is growing cynicism toward science, a sense of betrayal, of promises unrealized. After all, was not science supposed to be the new redeemer, our shining sword to ward off the threats of unpredictable Nature?
We get cures for myriad diseases only to discover new, incurable ones; we create new technologies that supposedly make life easier and more pleasant, only to spend more hours than ever at work. Even worse, technology advances so fast that it is virtually impossible for most of us to keep up, and a vast "technological underclass" is emerging, reminiscent of the socially displaced rural migrants in the medieval cities.
There’s a growing generational divide, where the younger population communicates in ways which are incomprehensible and meaningless to older folks. We can send a man to the Moon (or could, when it was politically relevant) but cannot feed most of the world's population. We consume the natural resources of our planet with reckless appetite, feeding our endless greed for material goods without looking back at the devastation we often leave behind.
And all this thanks to "science!"
So goes the credo of the discontent. Now I must wear the robes of the Science Apologist and refute the above accusations:
“First and foremost, science does not promise redemption. Science is a human invention preoccupied with understanding the workings of Nature. It is a body of knowledge about the Universe and its many inhabitants, living and nonliving, accumulated through a process of constant testing and refinement known as the scientific method.
"What the practice and study of science does provide is a path back to Nature, a way of reintegrating ourselves with the world around us. In so doing, it teaches us the essence of Nature – from the inanimate to the animate – its change and transformation. It teaches us that life and death are intertwined in a cosmic chain of being.
"It was the death of a nearby star that triggered the formation of our Sun, where life became possible in at least one member of its court of planets and moons. If there was life near that original dying star, it was destroyed with it, the same way life here will be destroyed when our Sun burns out. This dance of creation and destruction is constantly happening throughout the Universe, linking our histories, our lives and deaths, to a larger cosmic chain of transformation. As such, every link is important, from what we create and destroy in life to what we leave behind.
"Science may not offer eternal salvation, but it offers the possibility of a life free from the spiritual slavery caused by an irrational fear of the unknown. It offers people the choice of self-empowerment, which may contribute to their spiritual freedom. In transforming mystery into challenge, science adds a new dimension to life. And a new dimension opens more paths towards self-fulfillment."
Thus spoke the Science Apologist.
"Second, science does not determine what is to be done with its accumulated knowledge: we do. And this decision often falls into the hands of politicians, which, at least in a democracy, are chosen by society. The blame for the darker uses of science must be shared by all of us: Are we to blame the inventor of gunpowder for all the deaths from gunshots and explosives? Or the inventor of the microscope for the development of biological warfare?
"We, the scientists, have the duty to make clear to the public what we do in our labs, and what consequences, good or bad, our inventions may have for society at large. But there is no such thing as the ‘scientists’ as a group that shares a set of morals or views, or the blame for the uses and abuses of science. There is, I would like to believe, a common set of goals, to better understand the world and our place in it and, yes, to improve our living conditions and health."
Thus spoke the Science Apologist.
"Finally, science has not betrayed our expectations. Think of a world without antibiotics, computers, televisions, airplanes, and cars – a world in which we are all back in the forests and fields where we came from, living with no technological comfort.
"How many of us would be ready or willing to do it? Can you see yourself living in some cave or primitive hut, hunting for food, physically fighting constantly for survival? There is much hypocrisy in the criticism of science and of what it has done to us and to the planet. We did it all ourselves, through our choices and greed. It is not by slowing down scientific research or its teaching through legislation or censorship that we will change the inequities of a technological society; that is surely a one-way ticket back to the Middle Ages.
"What is needed is universal access to new technologies, aggressive funding for basic and applied research coupled with a widespread effort to popularize science. Only a society well versed in scientific issues will be able to dictate its own destiny, from the preservation of the natural environment to the moral choices of genetic research and nuclear power."
[This text is adapted from my book The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time (W. W. Norton, 2002)]