The Human Condition:

Is Science Perfect? – January 3, 2016

Veined leaf

Science writer Matt Ridley posted a Quadrant Online article in June 2015 which examined the damage that the “climate wars” and the exaggerations and data manipulations of the global warming alarmists might be doing to the reputation of the scientific community in general. In fact, he believes science itself will eventually need “a reformation,” similar to the changes in church doctrine during the 15th and 16th centuries.1

I’m not sure I would agree with that. First, because climate science and its championing of human-caused global warming is only a fraction of the actual enterprise of science, which stretches across vast fields such as biology, geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Second, because the “climate wars” have been focused on a ding-dong battle2 between advocates and skeptics based on mathematical modeling and long-range prediction, rather than on actual discoveries and the experimentation to test and prove new principles.

The trouble with our current thinking about science—and one contribution to the vitriol driving the “climate wars”—is the notion that somehow science is a perfect process, a completely rational, supra-human activity that will in all cases yield something akin to “the truth.” Years of television and generations of actors in white coats, riding on the coattails of some pretty amazing discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology over the last couple of centuries, have suggested to the lay public that science is somehow impervious to error or dispute. But science is still a human activity, and humans are flawed—wonderful, admirable, intelligent creatures, and the hottest thing going within a dozen light years on this end of a spiral arm of the Milky Way—but flawed. Still, we're trying, aren’t we?

As Ridley’s article suggests, even the most respected scientists are capable of harboring pet theories, succumbing to confirmation bias, and pursuing political expediency—particularly where grant money is concerned. Not until supercomputing artificial intelligences undertake the business of science—which means observing phenomena, wondering about causes, developing hypotheses, devising experiments to test them, and awarding grants to perform the experiments—will we have anything like a perfectly rational, soulless pursuit of knowledge. And even then, I would ask who programmed the intelligent software and what errors it might be prone to make and replicate on its own.

Until then, we will have scientific inquiry that hangs upon a few notions that transcend reason, analysis, modeling, and mathematics to access the darker chambers of the human psyche.

One such hidden chamber spawns the persistent belief that humankind is destroying itself, its habitat, and this planet, and so our activities must be curtailed and our ranks reduced. This belief, which in most people sinks below the level of rational analysis, goes back much farther than anthropogenic global warming. It underlay the efforts of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who tried to show mathematically that humans were doomed because population increases geometrically while agricultural land in production could only increase arithmetically. Or the Club of Rome, which believed that economic growth must inevitably be curbed by the scarcity of natural resources. It is a lingering sense of guilt about the footprints we leave in the sand.

I would trace this sense of doom back to the creation story in Genesis. Humans once lived in a perfect garden, in balance with nature, in a kind of enduring stasis. We supposedly changed that when we “ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge” and came to know, and became able to choose between, good and evil. Then we ceased to be children—or advanced monkeys—and became full human beings responsible for our destiny and for all of our supposed woes. We believe this creation story not just because it’s written in a sacred book, but because we humans have a bit of race memory—similar to our stories of a past Great Flood3—that goes back to a hundred thousand years or more of hunter-gatherer existence. With our myths and legends, we can almost dimly remember a long summer afternoon when game was plentiful and easy to kill, when berries and fruits were bountiful and easy to find. And in these stories we tend to forget the wretched autumns of barren fields and forests, or the winters of freezing snow, gnawing hunger, and death.

Scientists—who are today the most fearless eaters from the Tree of Knowledge—are still susceptible to the human fear that we can know too much and are too immature to deal with the consequences of our knowledge. Or they may want to know in the abstract—through thought experiments, mathematical equations, and computerized modeling—but they oppose a thoroughgoing application of such knowledge. In this they may be guided by recent examples from the weaponization of atomic, chemical, and biological principles, or the adoption of new technologies without a commensurate analysis of their social and environmental effects.4

In a similar way, the human psyche has also been plagued by a belief in Utopia—literally, in Thomas More’s writing, “No Place.” Somehow, if we could only find the right principles and then all agree to work together as brothers, we could create a perfect society. We could arrive in a world where all human needs are met; where all human desires are either fulfilled or shown to be the product of bad thoughts and evil cravings; where no one is exalted at the expense of another; where money, possessions, and distinctions between individuals melt away; where harmony, justice, and equality are the rule rather than the exception.

I would trace this sense of human and societal possibility in either or both of two directions. One direction takes us backward to the natural state of the family and of any close-knit, tribal grouping. People in closed societies, where every member is known to the others and people have long since accounted for everyone else’s habits and foibles, can live in some kind—although often an imperfect kind—of harmony, sharing, and equality. The other direction looks forward and follows the slow but steady improvement in human civilization and in our understanding of law, economics, nature, and psychology, which started sometime before the Renaissance, continued through the Enlightenment, the Age of Science and Reason, the Industrial Revolution, the Cybernetic Revolution—and seems likely to continue from now until we reach utopia or endure some kind of atomic or climatic Armageddon. This view says we have come so far and are improving so rapidly that, really, we should be achieving social perfection any day now. And so, with just a little more effort and agreement, we can force humanity’s arrival at in an endless afternoon of peace, love, and brotherhood.

This atavism affects social and economic scientists more than physicists and chemists. The 19th century’s Marxists envisioned a stateless social existence of perfect sharing, akin to the feudal village without the feudal lord. The 20th century socialists believed if they could just remove the profit motive from industrial operations by having a benevolent government take over the means of production, then we would have riches for all. The modern Progressives believe that by neutralizing the wealth at the top of society—the demonized “1%”—they can raise the living standards of everyone else.

But these doomsday phobias and utopian plans all ignore the true nature of humanity. We are pretty smart and independent, compared to our apelike ancestors, and we resent being told by others how to live our lives, make choices, and prepare for the future. As a species, we may be remarkably cooperative,5 but we are still self-interested individuals and not perfectly sharing creatures like the members of a hive society. Some people and some cultures are more community-minded than others, to be sure, but none is made up of selfless drones, because self- and family preservation is a human survival instinct. Any attempts to change human nature—whether by genetics, educational and emotional conditioning, legal sanctions, or surgical intervention—will fail.

These phobias and plans also ignore the true nature of reality. Everything in the universe is in flux. From the internal dynamics of galaxies and stars to the surface conditions on every moon and planet, change is the nature of all things. Whether it’s the dissipation of physical order and energy through entropy, or its curious reversal in the case of living organisms and their evolution, everything changes. There is no stasis. There are no perfect states.

Humans aren’t perfectible. We’re malleable, but also contrary. We’re far too inventive, restless, wondering, and surly to remain frozen inside anyone’s idea of a perfect state for long. We will always skate toward the brink of destruction, but then human sense and survival instincts will pull us back. That’s what has kept us alive for a million years or so in a hostile world with a variable climate and our frail bodies without the benefit of superior muscles, claws, fangs, or stingers. We won’t be put inside a box. And we don’t go under quietly—or not all of us, and not all at once.

Our thinking processes and our current state of knowledge reflect this restlessness. We are sea creatures swimming in a universe of advancing and retreating ideas and notions. And that’s what keeps life interesting.

1. Ridley has described himself as a “lukewarmist”—a position I pretty much hold. As described in the article, he agrees that global climate does change; that humankind’s carbon burning probably has made some contribution to this ongoing climate process, but is not responsible for a preponderance of the effects; and that, while human beings may eventually have to make some adjustments and adaptations in their lifestyles and economic activities, the amount of change over human life-spans and political time frames will probably not be particularly dangerous or devastating.

2. To borrow a phrase from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

3. Every culture seems to have its own flood story, from Noah and the Flood in the Bible, to Deucalion’s Flood in Greek and Roman mythology, to the Great Flood of Gun-Yu in Chinese legend. Certainly, anyone within storytelling distance of the seacoast 11,000 years ago saw or heard about the waters advancing as the last Ice Age melted. And a garbled version of the event has come down to us today.

4. Really, who here thinks we could get a horseless carriage powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion—either as mode of transportation or as shaper of urban landscapes—through an EPA review today? And the people who are betting on driverless cars haven’t yet tried to get one licensed for the public highways—or past an insurance company’s review process.

5. As someone once noted—and don’t ask me for a reference—imagine putting 130 breeding-age members of any other primate species inside an aluminum tube and asking them to sit quietly and cooperatively for four or five hours while you fly them to 35,000 feet—with concurrent changes in vibration, noise, humidity, and air pressure—to move them across a continent. With any other species, chaos, furniture smashing, and feces throwing would ensue.