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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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Thoughts on Western Technological Dominace

Most people will just assume that the West has been the technologically dominate force forever – after all, didn't “we” invent science? Most of the rest will realize that during the Middle Ages that technological development was stagnant compared to a lot of the people around them and will generally say that it was the Renaissance when European technology shot ahead of the rest of the world – after all, what else could really explain the European dominance of the world that followed the Renaissance?

Mostly, that's nonsense, however. Europeans achieved clear technological supremacy, globally, only in the 19th century – and by the 21st century, it's been lost, already, as Japan and South Korea have both eclipsed Western nations in terms of technological development (and China is fixing to do so).

I'm going to talk about ships and then metal. I could keep talking about issues like agriculture (in many ways, 20th century agriculture is a step back from 19th century Indian and Chinese techniques because of the consequences of mechanization and fertilization insofar as erosion and soil damage, but it wasn't until the 20th century, really, that Western farmers could claim to have any edge on South and East Asian farmers and even that might be illusionary as the world fuel situation changes).

European ships and exploration

One of the key areas that we believe the West has always had a clear advantage is ships and navigational techniques. That is not, actually, true. Western sailing ships until the 19th century were technologically inferior in most ways to Asian ships, particularly the junk. We see the junk and we think it is a comical ship, but the truth is that it is easier to sail because it has a less complex rigging and holds closer to the wind. This is primarily due to the semi-rigid sail it uses, with horizontal slats with bits of cloth sail between them – this creates a light, stiff sail. All that billowing that Western sails do? That's inefficiency. The Chinese junks quite likely circumnavigated the world in the 1420s as part of the exploration of for trade imperialism. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He is believed by basically everyone to have traveled from at least Egypt to Mozambique to Taiwan to Sumatra. A small, but apparently growing, group of people have followed Gavin Menzies in believing that Zheng He effectively circumnavigated the globe, and traveled to both North and South America, Australia, Greenland, you name it. Paul Chiasson believes that the Mi'kmaq people in eastern Canada are genetic descendants of Chinese sailors. Chinese imperial brass has been found in an archaeological site 250 miles inland in America. At the bare minimum, in the 15th century the Chinese naval prowess was superior to Europeans. If Menzies is right, then the Chinese naval prowess was superior to what Europeans would see until at least the 18th century.

So successful is the junk rig – the way that a sail is made and controlled aboard a ship – that the rig is still being used today. Indeed, some competitive sailors use paneled sails not very different from the ones used by Chinese sailors for most of Chinese history, and paneled sails are indisputably Chinese technology, originally. In contrast, most modern sailing boats use a Bermuda rig, which was developed in the 17th century – and it is largely tradition that keeps the Bermuda rig alive. All said and done, it is impossible to say that European sailing techniques ever exceeded Chinese sailing techniques until the Age of Steam.

Then, as so often happens, luck ruled the destiny of humans. A change in rulers in China put an end to Chinese exploration. The Mings had decided that rather than pursue expensive foreign exploration they would focus on a policy of inward development and cultural isolation. This ruinous policy would, in time, lead to China's domination by Europeans, especially the British, but at the time it looked pretty sensible, I suppose, as China was the richest country in the world. Why did they need anywhere else? So the fleet of Zheng He was destroyed. The Chinese would continue to be active merchants all through East, Southeast and South Asia, but there would be no more coordinated efforts to explore the world. It was into this vacuum of exploration that the Europeans would step.

You might notice I'm explaining Europe's success in exploration in cultural and political, not technological, terms. I am. That's because Chinese ships and navigation techniques were demonstrably at least as good as European ones.

European metallurgy

Europeans also believe that they have held the grip on metallurgy since at last the Renaissance. This is one of the more interesting technological stories.

Since time out of mind, the country that was traditionally regarded as having the finest metallurgy in the world was India. Indian metallurgy was just head and shoulders above everyone else's. Right now, to this day, in Delhi, there is an iron pillar that is 1600 years old that has never taken with rust. They are outdoors where they have been exposed to centuries worth of Indian monsoons. India also developed wootz steel, which was what the legendary “Damascus steel” blades really were (the term Damascus steel is often conflated with pattern welding forge techniques, I should add, so there is ambiguity to the term). Wootz steel was destroyed, along with the rest of the Indian steel industry, in the 19th century. It has only been recently that it has been rediscovered.

Even in the 19th century, while European cannons were made of bronze because steel ones would burst, the largest guns in the world were in the hands of northern Indian warlords, made out of steel that did not burst.

However, by the early 19th century, steel production and export was a big deal to European economies. The British steel manufacturers coveted the Indian market. But they had themselves a pretty big problem. Indians wouldn't buy European steel because it was inferior in quality to locally produced metals. Indian steel output, at this time, was also roughly equal to Britain. British steel makers sent people to India to find out what made Indian so good. They didn't have a lot of luck, though, because Indian steel was made in a distributed system of a lot of small mills with a lot of individualization of techniques. Furthermore, the steel making castes weren't willing to show their trade secrets to the English. Stymied because of the secretiveness of the Indian metallurgists and not able to replicate the economy of Indian metallurgists, and also wishing to disarm the Indians, they decided to handle things the old fashioned way and lean on the British Raj to force the Indian metallurgists to sell their mills, which were then closed down. Having no other option, the Indians started using the lower quality and more expensive British steel.

(The British did the same thing to Indian shipping. They didn't want the Indians to build ships because, y'know, they wanted to maintain India's dependence on England.)


Since I don't want to go on forever about this, I'm going to sum up, here.

None of this is to doubt the intellectual contributions of the West. That'd be absurd. However, Europeans have really undertaken a massive project of cultural imperialism and have stricken out the rest of the world's contributions to the arts and sciences, and ignored or trivialized the debt that Western science owes to other people and other cultures. Most people don't realize the vast debt that the world owes to Chinese and Indian science, including their mathematical advances that were further streamlined and improved by the Muslims before being absorbed into the West during the Enlightenment. When Europeans learn about scientific progress, it's almost inevitably as if Europeans did it all. If people from other cultures are mentioned, it's as a footnote or, perhaps, a sidebar. This is pure racism. When one looks at the actual technological development of non-Western societies it's actually pretty easy to find areas where those societies matched or exceeded the West (and, obviously, are doing so, again). I have given only a few examples but the list goes on and on, especially once you start bringing agriculture into it.

I hope that people will start to more seriously consider non-Western contributions to the sciences as a way of overcoming the continuing racism that the world suffers – I hope that people, when they understand how much we've been dependent on each other for learning and progress rather than seeing other people in other places as an impediment to progress they'll see them as partners in progress.

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Friday, March 16, 2007


From God is for Suckers comes yet another cool YouTube video!

This man, with neolithic tools, by himself, successfully erected a Stonehenge sized block. By himself. He thinks that the folks in Stonehenge must have done something similar, which may never be known, but he has conclusively demonstrated that it can be done with very simple tools.

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