Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ben's Folly

Ben Stein holds forth on the value of science:

Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

Can this be true? Has science directly led to death and slaughter? Has science done this in itself and by itself? Did Auschwitz happen because of science? The very claim, put that way, sounds utterly ludicrous, probably because it is utterly ludicrous. The Holocaust didn't happen because a dispassionate search for the nature of things, carried out by trial and error, led the Nazis to the inescapable empirical conclusion that the Jews are a subhuman race who needed to be wiped off the face of the Earth and erased from history. The Nazis were not given to evidence and experiment. They came to their ghastly enterprise with their conclusions already drawn, their beliefs already settled. The Nazi mindset was not, by any definition of the word that a reasoned person would employ, a scientific one. It was a religious one: a religion of the State carried to the kinds of extremes that leave science far, far behind in favor of absolute knowledge of absolute hatred.

Did science play any role in this? Only in the way that science ever plays a role in the more disturbing aspects of human history: the application of scientific knowledge toward horrifying ends. Science played a role in the development of Zyklon-B, clearly enough. But science also played a role in the development of penicillin. Robert Goddard's pioneering work on rockets may have set some on the road to coming up with ways to rain explosives down on enemy cities from afar, but that same work allowed us to take our first step toward the stars.

Science is, in itself, neither good nor bad, which is what makes it the ultimate double-edged sword. The great fear of Carl Sagan's life was that in a time when science had made it possible for humans to finally begin to peel back the pages of the Universe, it had also made it possible for humans to destroy themselves utterly. But it wouldn't be science carrying out that ultimate act of societal suicide. It would be us.

But for people who would blame science for the things that go wrong in this world, perhaps some reminders are in order. It's because of science that we can store entire movies on shiny discs so we can watch them on televisions or computer monitors. It's because of science that we have those televisions and computer monitors in the first place. It's because of science that we have movies. It's because of science that we can listen to music without having to wait for our favorite musical ensemble to actually come to town and play the music for us. It's because of science that we can live in very hot cities in the summertime and not have to accept that we'll live with sweat.

It's because of science that an average person today lives to their seventies, instead of their forties. It's because of science that we can call our friends whenever we want to. It's because of science that cancer isn't the automatic death sentence that it used to be. It's because of science that, even today, we can eat relatively cheaply and relatively healthily. It's because of science that we can travel great distances in periods of time not best measured in days or months. It's because of science that we know what our world looks like from afar.

And it goes back through history. It was because of science that we learned how to sail the seas, first out of sight of land, then to mark our way by the stars, and then to mark our progress by way of longitude. It was because of science that the oil lamp gave way to the electric one. It was science that taught us that our world circles a star, and it was science that revealed our world as a globe. It was science that revealed the age of our planet and the great beings that once walked upon it, for many more thousands of years than we, the world's self-appointed masters, have so much as crawled. It was science that solved the problems posed by bodies in the night sky that moved in ways they seemed like they shouldn't. It was science that revealed the causes of diseases and the steps required to either prevent them or cure them, and it was science that revealed the interconnection of every living being on this planet of ours and the ways they influence each other and evolve together.

It was science that kept my brain-damaged son from dying within hours of his birth.

What science did not do is make the Germans elect a government that held as one of its central tenets the inherent superiority of the German people; nor did science make that government comprise itself of some of the most murderous people ever to take the reins of a national government. Neither did science make the rest of the world rise up in opposition to that abomination. Did science make it possible for the Nazis to kill six million Jews and however many other "undesirables"? Doubtless, but science also made it possible for the rest of the world to defeat them. Science was, as it has only ever been, a mere tool. Tools can be used for varying purposes, but never has a tool made the user do anything at all. The hammer doesn't make me strike a nail, nor does it make a murderer smash in a skull.

Carl Sagan once wrote, in Cosmos: "Science is only a tool. But it is the best tool we have." The Ben Steins of the world would have us set aside that tool without ever realizing how their world has been built in its entirety using that very tool. They want to have it both ways. Would the world be a worse place if the Wright Brothers, experimenting as scientists do, flown at last at Kitty Hawk, and if no one else had ever followed up their insights? Most definitely. But it would be a world in which the World Trade Center would still be standing. Is science to blame for 9-11-01? Using science as a tool, the Nazis were able to create means of industrial murder that appall us even today. But also using science as a tool, we've created the very weapons that we employ in wars of choice, wars that I'll wager Ben Stein supports enthusiastically, not out of any empirical questioning of the results, but out of the application of a kind of nation-as-religious-entity.

A carpenter who blames his tools for the collapse of his structure is a bad carpenter. Ben Stein is a very bad carpenter indeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is because of science that the opinions of people like Ben Stein can be heard or read by millions of people instead of just a handful of villagers. Isn't it funny that people who hate science are never against using it for their own purposes?