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What’s so good about science?

March 24, 2011

Those who know me will know that my primary interests have always been on the humanities side of the ‘two cultures’ divide. I studied English Literature at university and about the only skill I have is that I’m quite good at explaining poems to people. (Sadly there seems to be little demand for this talent during a recession, or, indeed, at any other time.) Given my love of literature and the fact that there are still a few great books which I have not read (though, to be fair, not very many) why would I waste my time trying to understand quantum theory or remember the pairing of bases in DNA?  I intend here to give a brief account of why I became interested in science and what it has given me.

Children are notorious for always asking ‘why?’ Why is the sky blue? Why do rabbits eat grass? Why do bad things happen to good people? It seems strange to me that some people stop asking these questions. I suppose it is possible that they have found out all the answers and are much wiser than the rest of us but this seems unlikely. It is more plausible that they have the inquisitiveness trained out of them through a combination of bad parenting, television and sub-standard teaching. Of course, ‘why questions’, though seemingly naive, are the most important questions, reflecting the Socratic attitude to wisdom (‘all I know is that I know nothing’). As someone who continued to ask these questions it was probably only a matter of time before I turned to science.

There were some proximate causes, however. One was Ben Goldacre who started his ‘Bad Science’ column in The Guardian a few years ago. He opened my eyes to the importance of understanding science from a practical, political point of view. The scientifically naive have two options when science is in the news: they can arbitrarily decide to reject science out of hand and place their faith in aromatherapists or astrologers, or they can believe everything they read and place their faith, equally unwisely, in science journalists and tabloid editorial policy. Without scientific knowledge it is impossible for the average citizen to distinguish good science from bad and this becomes important when hoaxes are perpetrated regarding vaccines or there is public debate about genetically modified foods. It is a problem for a democracy if many citizens are ill-equipped to understand these issues. It is equally a problem for the free market if consumers cannot see through the pseudo-scientific nonsense peddled by cosmetics companies and self-styled nutritionists. The consideration that it was my duty as a citizen to understand science was helped by the fact that Goldacre had provided me with even more things to be self-righteous about (not that I didn’t have plenty already). In brief, knowing some science doubles one’s already considerable superiority to the average Daily Mail reader.

One thing that becomes more and more clear to me as I get older is that everything is connected, not in a vague mystical sense, but in a simple obvious way. As an example let us take the study of Shakespeare. To understand the plays it is helpful to understand their place in literary history, the conventions and stylistic features of their time and the place of theatre in early modern England. To understand this it helps to understand the socio-political features of Shakespeare’s time. To understand this one must have a broad historical knowledge of the period, including the history of the Renaissance and Reformation. These of course only make sense within the broader course of European and human history. It is also useful to understand the intellectual climate of Shakespeare’s time which was the period between Copernicus and Galileo. (The interesting parallel between the reformation of the heavens and that of the church immediately pops out.) Shakespeare often talks about music. What kind of music would he have heard? And so on. My point is that a deeper understanding of any one thing eventually requires a knowledge of the whole. Art does not exist in isolation from science. Galileo’s father Vincenzo, for instance, was one of the music theorists who invented opera while Shakespeare’s son-in-law, John Hall was a doctor and medical researcher. The great advantage of hypertext is that it makes these connections clear. One should be able to start from a random page on Wikipedia and be able eventually to access all other articles only using hypertext links.

I have mentioned elsewhere that I consider science to be a branch of philosophy and it was also a study of philosophy which brought me to science. For much of their history the two subjects overlap and because I believe that to understand anything it is essential to understand its history, I pursued the study of both. I think that in many ways this is a useful way for the non-scientist to understand contemporary science. The history of genetics or particle physics is a helpful road to understanding the modern level of knowledge as we can follow the discoveries step-by-step and see the logic of, for instance, quantum theory, when we have an idea of the experiments which brought physicists to these conclusions. Rather than being presented with the  fait accompli of the current counter-intuitive theory we can see why that theory exists and what problems it solves. Scientific revolutions are also exciting and geology, for example, can be made much more interesting by showing the ways in which Hutton, Lyell and others changed our ideas about the age and nature of our planet.

There is then, great drama in science and great characters and these appeal to my literary side. There is also the aesthetic aspect, or the sense of wonder which science can inspire. Contrary to a popular misconception, understanding how something works does not detract from its beauty. This argument is sometimes put to students of literature, but I can say from experience that doing a line-by-line analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet does not take one jot from its aesthetic effect, rather I think that a more detailed understanding of the poem gives us a more profound experience on reading it. Equally there is no reason that science should destroy the beauty of the natural world, if anything it makes it more marvellous. We may know that the moon is a barren rock but a moonlit night is no less wonderful now than when our ancestors worshipped it as a goddess. Science has, in fact, given us much more to wonder at. If you fancy being awestruck I recommend that you find out what it is that DNA actually does. This fantastically intricate process is going in in all the cells in your body all the time, producing billions of proteins every day. Space telescopes have photographed distant galaxies and cosmic phenomena of unimaginable beauty. Science adds to the sum total of beauty in our lives.

There are downsides to all this knowledge. In the context of geological time and given the size of the universe it is hard to see the point of going to work. Consideration of the fact that we are made from atoms which are almost entirely composed of empty space can put one into a headspin which makes even basic actions seem improbably bizarre. Understanding Darwinism can make one obsessed with reproductive success and the passing on of genes. I now feel guilty about putting apple-cores into a bin and thus denying those genes any future and blocking a possible branch on the tree of life. Of course knowing some science immediately ruins almost all sci-fi movies (though a working knowledge of history does the same for most historical productions). The compensation is that it is fairly easy to impress people. In a land of scientific ignorance the woman or man who knows the difference between genes and DNA or who can explain relativistic time dilation is queen or king.

While it is nice to be able to mock people who think that there are ‘good calories and bad calories’ (I’ve heard someone say this) or that modern medicine is a terrible thing and we should rely on ancient wisdom from the time when average life expectancy was about four (exaggeration for comic effect) there is more to being scientifically literate than simply increasing smugness. We live in a scientific age when our lives are becoming more and more dependant on technologies which most of us do not understand.  With human cloning, genetic modification, ‘designer’ babies and artificial intelligence either here or within sight there are important ethical issues which all of us should be engaged in debating. This would be more productive than debates about astrology or creationism. The climate change issue has shown that the scientifically illiterate are easily misled by rabble-rousing demagogues and politically-motivated, unscrupulous journalists. It is hard to conceive of an issue where scientific knowledge could be more important to the fate of humanity.

But on a more personal level, I like science because it is interesting and because it is there. We know why the sky is blue, why rabbits eat grass and why bad things happen to good people. Science has made such great advances in recent centuries and so much hard work has gone into it that it would seem rather ungrateful to ignore it. It might be the modern equivalent of living in London in 1600 and not going to the Globe to see Hamlet.

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From → Science

3 Comments
  1. Nick Seeber permalink

    Dear Joseph,

    Whilst I’m whole-heartedly behind you for the majority of this post, the one sentence I object to is your statement about there being no difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ calories. On this point I would venture to disagree.

    The measurement of a calorie is notoriously mechanistic- originally relating to the ‘pure’ energy released when a food substance is literally burned (although there have been many refinements since). This approach to measuring the energy contained in foods is fundamentally flawed, as it does not take into account either the complex metabolic pathways that different nutrients take during digestion, or the effect that different nutrients have on each other during metabolism, or the variations in metabolism introduced by the timing of the calorific intake in relation to the body’s physiology (eg early morning vs after vigorous exercise vs late at night).

    As such it is perfectly valid to refer to ‘good’ calories or ‘bad’ calories. Typically ‘good’ calories include foods like avocado, mackerel or nuts, versus ‘bad’ calories from foods which are high in saturated fats, high-fructose corn syrup etc.

    There is lots more to say about this, I’m sure you can research yourself. It’s enormously interesting!

    Best regards,

    Nick

  2. Thank you for the comment. Although I see your point and agree that the calorie is probably not a very useful measure in the context of nutrition I would defend myself on the linguistic point. As a unit of measurement I don’t see that a calorie can be either good or bad, any more than a metre or a kilogram can be. I can’t imagine describing a chocolate bar as weighing ‘bad’ grams as opposed to an apple which weighs ‘good’ grams. I think it might be more accurate to speak of ‘good sources of calories’ or ‘bad sources of calories’. I may be being slightly pedantic here but it wouldn’t be the first time.
    My point was really about the fact that people often don’t know what calories actually are. In the conversation I referred to I asked the person what a calorie was and they said ‘it’s a type of fat, isn’t it?’

  3. I feel strongly about science and chemistry, and all of that fun cool stuff, but others out there can not see the way I see, although I am just a child, age-11, I have worked really hard to win 5th grade president, and won, sooooo, I’m working on bringing science back to life, we have a science lab, why not use it! Science is not just eny science but it has the ability to be the only one who can do things that we can not! If you read this please send me a reply, or, email me. Thank you, Emily.T

    Email-24ertracy@rsu18.org

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