Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Trust in Science, a Brief Overview

Nowadays, we put a lot of trust in science. I think we place so much trust in science that we don't really grasp how recently it was science earned widespread trust.

The crossover was probably during World War II. It was during WWII that science fairly obviously made a difference. Not just the dropping of the atomic bomb – though, more than any other one thing, probably did “convince” people that science was a big thing – but also things such as radar, jet engines, rocketry and so on.

Before then, even engineers were apprenticed. To become an engineer, one first became a draftsman and people with the “right” talents would learn under an engineer. The great inventors of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries were not scientists, by and large – people like Edison and Tesla were not scientifically trained and Edison, for instance, held science in some contempt. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics!

In the 19th century and earlier, science was, by and large, a dilettante's field. Roentgen did his work in the attic of his house – fiddling with big razor switches and exposed copper wiring hooked up to smoking capacitors and all sorts of vacuum tubes. He fussed around with barium platinocyanide plates and discovered x-rays. It was like Frankenstein's castle, no joke. The guy who started nuclear technology was hiding in his attic because he was fearful that his associates would think him mad.

A surprising amount of 19th century science was like that. When Darwin did his seminal work on evolution, it was a dilettante's work – he was the naturalist. The job of the Beagle was survey to produce naval charts for commerce and war. Darwin had to pay out of his own pockets to get the position of naturalist, and he was considered a kind of passenger. He was a scientific dilettante – a passionately committed one, but all of this science was done on shoestring budgets, and as such was normally done by people of some wealth.

Their studies had very little practical impact, at least initially. X-rays were developed – sometimes with fatal consequences – as a type of medical therapy for the rich and all sorts of snake oil claims about them were made. X-rays for the kinds of medical purposes we associate today, like checking to see where bones are broken and where bullets are inside of people, didn't get popularized until, again, World War II. Until then, x-rays were a dilettante's toy.

But World War II thrust science permanently into public consciousness as a force that would inevitably change the world. But before that? Yes, as early as the 18th century people like David Hume were proposing that the world was an entirely naturalistic place and forecasting that gods had no place in that world – but it is difficult to express how much of that was an aberration and most people during the Enlightenment seriously thought that religion lead to a proof of god's existence (they also believed this during the Romantic Era, but amongst scientists to a far lesser extent). And the ancient Greeks and Indians had several purely naturalistic philosophies. But the great mass of people were largely ignorant of science, and what scientists were doing was mostly irrelevant to them.

And when it did! It was this shock. Scientists had, for the first time ever, set their minds and wills to destruction, and created a weapon with which to destroy the world. It was not a midwifery to engender tremendous love of science – but fear. The 50s had tremendous nuclear anxiety – it was the time of air raid drills in school, children huddling under schools as if a desk could protect them from nuclear destruction.

So, even when people started to trust science they did in the sense that they trusted science to work, not trusting in science to make the world a better place.

Fortunately for the world, a full-scale war between industrialized nations hasn't occurred. Let us hope it never will. But science has begun to get people's trust in the sense that not only does it work, but it makes the world a better place. Now, while there is still some anxiety about nuclear destruction, scientists are see as people arguing to control climate change, they are the people who work on new drugs, they make us better, faster computers, things of this nature. Science has shown it's ability to build more than weaponry.

I think that a lot of people still don't trust science. I don't know how much this is due to the anxiety of science's power being demonstrated by nuclear weaponry – but during the 50s the definitive image of science was nuclear science, particularly nuclear weapons. Nowadays? Computer technology, which his far less immediately threatening. Computers help us, they entertain us, work with us, etc., which is somewhat different than the image of nuclear fire. But I think that science and people's trust of science has suffered because of it's nuclear aberrations.

The trust of science as a benevolent force, however, developed, IMO, during the 70s and 80s – and certainly not before the 60s. Before that, science was seen as fierce nuclear fire and before that . . . as useless dilettantes.

Again, while it is indisputable that science works better than any other epistemological force on earth in a material sense, with impressive predictive power and multifaceted technological implications, but until recently it hasn't been the least bit friendly. In the fight between science and other epistemological systems (and I'm sure the people who read my journal “get it” that I'm talking about religion, primarily), I think it's important to point out that until recently science was threatening and before that it was irrelevant. Friendly science has existed for less than forty years.

Which now strikes me as a bit jumbled, but containing an important lesson on why we have these struggles with science. The trust we have in science is still new, and it is raw from it's nuclear aberrations. But it is founded in an increasingly unshakable sense that it works, which distinguishes it from other epistemological systems. But this trust has been hard won.

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6 Comments:

Sacred Slut said...

I think you trusted technology too much...you need to edit duplicate paras.

I'm not sure I agree with all of your timeline...it seems to me that serious use of technology and the anti-religious movement started earlier in Europe, as a result of WWI. I'm not much of an historian, though, so I may be wrong.

In any event, it's true that science and technology have really taken off in the last 40-60 years. I would guess part of the reason people don't trust science and technology is that they are quite often used in bad ways. It's not just nukes that have the potential to kill or hurt us - it's also genetic engineering and GM foods, pollution caused by technology, bioterrorism, etc.

And of course the more we know about science, the less sense the supernatural view of the universe makes. Very frightening to the theist.

May 8, 2007 5:24 PM  
L>T said...

yes, I agree nuclear science was frighening back then, terrifying acually. I remember those air raid drills. Science seemed so mysterious & technical. Remember the old science digest Mags? Back in the early 60's when I was a little kid, science still seemed to still be almost Dr. Frankenstein like. too.
Although science has become "friendly" in our minds & proven itself, like you said that in it's self is very frightening to the theist.
It is to science's credit that their(the theists) arguments are so thin. :)
Like when they project science in the future as becoming more & more evil...BWahaha

May 8, 2007 8:22 PM  
L>T said...

So alot of the problems ordinary people have with fearing Science is plain ole inmmaturity, they are still prone to see it in childish way.(I kinda base this on my experience with old people & their backwards way of seeing Technology) Religious fearmongers capitalize on this fear of the unknown & try to turn it into something evil. I don't see how they can succeed, being that it's just ignorance based on nothing, really.

May 8, 2007 8:51 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

I would guess part of the reason people don't trust science and technology is that they are quite often used in bad ways. It's not just nukes that have the potential to kill or hurt us - it's also genetic engineering and GM foods, pollution caused by technology, bioterrorism, etc.

But . . . so is religion, and politics, and just about every other thing. I don't have the answer to it.

And I focused on technology because technology is the proof science works for almost everyone. What most people know about science could fit in a matchbox and leave room for a planet -- except they know it works. They don't how, really, but they've got immediate physical evidence of it working surrounding them all the time.

May 9, 2007 9:56 AM  
Chris Bradley said...

So alot of the problems ordinary people have with fearing Science is plain ole inmmaturity, they are still prone to see it in childish way.(I kinda base this on my experience with old people & their backwards way of seeing Technology) Religious fearmongers capitalize on this fear of the unknown & try to turn it into something evil. I don't see how they can succeed, being that it's just ignorance based on nothing, really.

It's my opinion it's a little more complex than this. I said in another thread, recently, that before the modern day, technological change was v. slow. Gunpowder was brought to European in the 13th century, and movable type in the 16th. These things that changed society did so slowly and society had a lot of time to adapt to those changes.

Not so, nowadays. Because of science, the pace of change has radically increased. In the past 100 years, it's hard to nail down all the changes. Some of the big ones include airplanes, radio, TVs, genetic engineering, nuclear weaponry, computers, satellite communications, jet engines, radar, space flight. Soon we'll be coming face to face with nanotechnology and cloning. There's a company in America that intends to build a space elevator in 30 years.

Whoa. That's a little different than gunpowder making it here in the 1300s and three hundred years later coming the next big invention.

People are being psychologically shocked by the speed of the change, which is overturning traditional and established social norms. And before society can even adapt to the first change, another change comes along.

So, I'm not sure that it's immaturity. It seems to me that it's something else -- that since the 20th century, our society has to get used to a state of constant, increasing flux brought about by the fact that every couple of years science is gonna be changing the world.

Retreat into stable (and, thus, almost by definition extremely conservative organizations -- organizations that resist change) is sensible. Not good. I don't think a person can get anything from religion that they couldn't get better from education and psychological therapy. And I FULLY agree that religion is leveraging the fear and anxiety that people have facing this constantly changing world to swell their ranks in a dishonest way. But I think that confronted with the destruction of what a lot of people regard as their "life" it's natural to seek relief from all that stress.

Of course, it's sorta doomed to failure. Traditional religion is a placebo, at best. It's not like religion can STOP this (tho' it is obviously trying) and it's totally unprepared to deal with it, so in the end people are finding it dissatisfying. It's one of the reasons the ranks of the atheists are swelling, I think. Religion is incapable of really helping people with the very thing most people go to religion to get help with, emotionally speaking.

May 9, 2007 10:08 AM  
L>T said...

That's right you did that post about future shock (I have a hard time keeping up with you) & I did sorta get the idea of the psychological shock of it.

Your last paragraph is right on I think. Religion just can't cut it anymore. Time for me to push my humanist agenda!

May 9, 2007 5:52 PM  

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