Is science heading us in the wrong direction?

So I’ve removed my videos from youtube as I now see that its not a particularly useful way to get points across. If there is something which I feel I can deliver better via video then I will do so, but not just because of potentially more views. One aspect of the youtube shebang however is that I started a brief conversation with another youtube user who agreed I could post the discussion here. Below is a modified version.

DRC: My quarrel with science isn’t with the effectivenes or legitimacy of the scientific method. What I’m starting to explore is the idea that scientific knowledge relies on social structures and energy assumptions which are unhealthy and unsustainable.

Whether one pursues science for science’s sake or for practical goals seems immaterial.

From your [post on youtube], I get the impression that you think it would be horrible if technological development were to slow down. What I’m trying to discuss is the idea that perhaps this unquenchable quest is dangerous.

We seem addicted to “progress”, but we seem to be progressing into an ever deepening chasm. Do you think 10 billion people (~2040) will blithely hop from fossil fuels to solar panels? Do you not agree that we routinely create problems of ever-increasing complexity and severity?

freeze43 : I’m not talking about overarching progress of humanity here. Some kind of fossil-fuel dependent space travel for billions of people would clearly be an error.

However scientific investigation is essential, and from a consuming point of view, negligible. I don’t see any scientific investigation, however vast, having a profound effect on energy consumption (manned space missions notwithstanding).

The problems we create aren’t that severe either. [here is a brief example that was later agreed to remove to keep on the main discussion].

But this is beside the point. Scientific progression is required for both our problems and for a better understanding of the world. Would you say that a reduced knowledge of the planet’s ecosystems would be a good thing? What about effective ways of implementing safe sex in developing countries? Halt funding to renewable energy resources? If you think these are areas worth investigation, I think it would be exceptionally difficult to delineate what is ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t, and would likely fall into making arbitrary rulings. This particular argument can be given with a purely positivist understanding. I’m no positivist, and I personally feel science in every facet of the universe, worthwhile or not, warrants investigation and scrutiny.

DRC: Science is funded by people who expect to get something out of it – technologists who will patent it, and propel/expand the depletion of resources. Corporations who will package it, litigate it, market it, and maintain the array of wage-slaves in the pursuit of profit. They can patent life forms now, you know? If science could just be science, I’d have a hard time arguing against it. And, I’m not sure how whole-heartedly I’m arguing now. I just refuse to be dismissive of the idea that perhaps the modus operandi of our little civilization scheme is going to ultimately be unsuccessful.

I’m not really trying to change your mind that scientific progression is required for both our problems and for a better understanding of the world. That later part, I grant you – the scientific method is good in the sense of truth-tracking. What I’m really interested in is your opinion about problem creation. At least on the surface, it seems plausible to me that our solutions sow the seeds of yet greater problems. Part of the issue is that we define problems to be ‘that which we do not like’.

freeze43: Science is not a patent or a way to discover new products. While it is true that often laboratories may work towards making money, this is a goal that is both beneficial as it provides necessary funding, and encourages drive. It does lean towards a vague positivist framework, however the behaviour of universities and scientifically gleaned patents means that profit is a reward for good behavior, not encouragement for unscrupulousness. For instance, my fiance is working in medical science and patents expire in ten years, to wit the discovering company must make any medicine public. As far as I am aware, this patenting and privatizing is most extreme here, and I think it is fair. Free markets tend to ensure the best available options for everyone involved. Of course their are exceptions (the history of ibogaine a pertinent example) but it stands to reason that a freer market will confer better results.

Exploratory science, the science by which completely new options are discovered, is, by its very nature, difficult to fund with a view of naked profiteering. There is little capacity, for instance, for any singular company to find income arising from a refined theory of black holes, or the discovery of archaea in Antarctica etc. But even if their was, its unpredictability in discovery makes it impossible to make a profit rubric.

Science is the best option for alternative fuel sources, and based on current endeavours I think it would be unlikely that when fuel is gone (or ,far more probable, simply more expensive than other energy sources) that we’re going to be taking any steps back. Again, I reaffirm that science for science is the best and potentially only way to keep going and it would be wrong to do otherwise. Who is anyone to dictate what science should or should not be attempted?

Science is also the source of solutions. The proof is in the pudding I think. Better science leads us to better solutions that result in less follow-on problems. Again, the best science is science that operates for its own sake and this confers the greatest solutions. Purely from a speciest perspective no one can deny quality of life has many times exponentially improved due to rational science. Environmentally speaking, Science gives us not only the best way to combat problems but the best data to inform us why they are problems and how they occur.


EDIT: A nice video on the subject is here.


~ by freeze43 on December 29, 2010.

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