Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bathroom Monologue: Science: The next final frontier

I don’t find either science or religion to be entirely bad. The scientific method was a very good idea. So was “Thou shalt not murder.” Churches organizing food drives for the poor is a good thing. The Polio vaccine is another. Sometimes religion and science get along: for good with Christian relief workers carrying inoculations, and for evil with Crusaders carrying tempered steel blades. And generally, you can divvy the mysteries of life into the categories of “How” and “Why,” so that each is its own pie. Science is one flavor, and spirituality is another. You can eat from whatever slice you like. Most intelligent people don’t even have trouble mixing the contents of their plates. But when I hear Richard Dawkins not just overstepping his boundaries but claiming manifest destiny over the other half of the intellectual globe, I go into fits of ranting against the very things I love. They’re generally like this:

You see back in the Dark Ages, a select few told the masses what to believe, and how everything was. They decided what was right behind closed doors, coming to conclusions from procedures the masses were never allowed to understand. That was religion then. That’s science now.

There were a lot of ways science attained dominance. One was to become inseparable from war, by inventing nerve gas, armor-piercing bullets and nuclear weapons. If a country wanted to kill effectively, they needed science.

Another step was to become inseparable from disease, treating it, even if the doctor was on too tight a schedule to properly explain the procedure or drug. That was also a foothold to get science into economics, to produce seven pills needed every day instead of a one-shot cure for cancer. Not that it was just medicine. Science produced technologies that have raped the environment for very high dividends.

But the biggest step in science’s dominance was to become unintelligible.

Publishing isn’t a question of moveable type anymore; it’s a question of how many printed copies a retailer can move. Priests and monks can’t keep the Bible from the masses. The educated opinion of experience is available to anyone who is literate, and there are free nationwide programs to teach people to read from childhood. So how does science keep you ignorant? One method is having your Daniel Dennett’s and Stephen Jay Gould’s write in so much jargon, write so densely that even though you've spoken English all your life, you don’t know what’s being said. They throw charts, equations and references at you, such that even though you paid $26 for this thin paperback, it will sit on your shelf, half-read and every bit as useless as if it were written in ancient Greek and Hebrew. There is so much bad science writing that colleges don't even try to teach scientists proper writing anymore, but rather they get students accustomed to reading it, which in turn gets them to write it. And it's not just murky language and the overuse of needless jargon. Every damn book is full of more uncriticized and unexplained references to other books you haven’t read, seldom properly explaining that material, such that you can never piece together an understanding complexity theory or string theory or why oxygen (a gas at room temperature) and hydrogen (a gas at room temperature) combine to form water (a liquid at room temperature that is the foundation of life on this planet). The books that manage to "dumb it down" tend to get things gapingly wrong, leave out huge pieces of their subject matter, or (the sadly increasing trend) sensationalize things to be in some way wildly offensive, since that's where the money is in non-fiction these days.

It’s in part because scientists don’t understand it all, that no scientist knows “it all” yet; but more than that, it’s because they’re keeping you, me, and the rest of us in the dark, in an artificial dimness of ignorance and poor articulation. That way you won’t be able to protect yourself against the next pill that may ruin your life when it’s supposed to help you sleep. That way you can live quietly as one in the masses in a dark age of enlightenment. You’ll pay a tithe to an insurance company, a tithe to the pharmacy, and if you want plenary indulgence, you have to take out student loans and spend years of your life in the new monasteries at Oxford, MIT or John’s Hopkins, where you’ll be taught that you don’t need the opiate of the people if you can just prescribe opiates. And that’s a weird investment when you consider that this faith has no afterlife -- you’re spending a hefty slice of what time you have alive trying to understand what these megalomaniacs have been coding during their various tenures at such-and-such governmentally-endowed New-Church-of-Screw-the-Dumb-People. I don’t know if it’s revenge for them getting beaten up in Middle School, or if it’s a great aphrodisiac, or if it makes them feel special, but it’s an oppositional force to understanding, and we shouldn’t have to take intelligent people aside and explain to them the pain that ignorance causes. Not today.

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