Science Versus Progress

I’ve been inspired, by a recent debate I had with relatives, to try to articulate my stance on the issue of “science” and how it relates to other realms of human knowledge such as poetry. First off, I have to say that I find the term “science” to be so vague as to be nearly useless in any thoughtful conversation. Nevertheless, in an attempt to resuscitate a dying word (as writers often find themselves tragically compelled to do), I will try defining the word in a fashion that seems both useful and consistent with most common, contemporary usage. The word “science,” when used in a coherent manner, seems to refer to any kind of knowledge that has been gained through the application of the scientific method.

The scientific method is itself an eminently useful tool, and, like a screwdriver, can be used for potentially infinite purposes. However, the scientific method doesn’t provide guidelines for how to use the screwdriver, because it is the screwdriver. And, since all legitimate scientific conclusions must be derived directly from the application of this method, “science” can never be anything more than a screwdriver, or, if you prefer, a car or a cell phone or a gun. These are all tools one can choose to use or not. Sometimes a purpose seems to be suggested by the design of the thing, but to assume that it must therefore be used, and used for that purpose, is to confuse tools with values. In other words, in case I’m being too subtle here, the moment anyone claims that “science” offers any kind of guiding principles, you know you’re no longer dealing with the scientific method, which works best when one has no preconceived notions about how the world is supposed to work. For example, notions that life is imperfect and must be improved, or that life was less satisfying in the past, before, say, computers or antibiotics, or that humans are more evolved than bacteria are all thoroughly unscientific beliefs. These are the kinds of statements that someone who believes in progress might make, and “progress” is a faith, one which is no more scientific than Catholicism or Capitalism or any other kind of belief system, and, I might add, no less valuable, but to exclusively associate “science” with Progress, as many people do, is not only unscientific but also extraordinarily dangerous. This knee-jerk association, on a societal level, has unfortunately made the modern history of scientific discovery read a lot like “The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” and has condemned entire generations of talented scientists to little more than damage control, attempting to solve the problems caused by the zealous overuse, misuse, and abuse of discoveries made by their predecessors.

I know of no simpler way to say this. The scientific method is inherently no closer to Progress than it is to any other value system, whether it be Business, Poetry, Socialism, or a Religion.

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