David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology


Here is a bold statement: Education is the answer to all of the world’s problems. This may seem naïve, but I believe it is true. The problems of our world boil down to this: Those who lack knowledge and critical thinking skills are successfully manipulated by those who desire power over them. The social progress that I believe has occurred over the past centuries is a direct result of widening enfranchisement and increasing levels of education, and we need more of it, much more.


My mother was a teacher, and as much as I hate to be harsh about our educational system, I have to judge it by the results. Over and over again, I see polls that reflect the appalling ignorance of the American people. I see ignorant people being taken advantage of by knowledgeable people. I see American voters who vote against their own interests because they are manipulated by shrewd power-mongers. I see people who labor under the delusion that they are powerless, because they are propagandized by the powerful to believe it.


Americans are ignorant about science, literature, philosophy, art, and history. Even recent American history. If you doubt this, ask 5 Americans on the street who the last 5 American presidents were. Or ask them to name just one current Supreme Court justice. Or what religion the current President of the United States belongs to.


Part of that history is the history of science and technology. Americans almost universally embrace technology, at least once it is tried and proven. I don’t see a lot of people pleading for an end to sewerage treatment, drinking water out of the nearby bayou, shutting off their air conditioners or refrigerators, or throwing all of their electronic devices in the garbage. Yet there is a profound disconnect between people’s embrace of technology and their attitudes about what produces it. The American standard of living is the result of careful, often painstaking, intellectual effort, a commitment to the scientific method. Yet America continues to exhibit a running anti-intellectualism and a devaluing of critical thinking. Somehow the history of science and technology has gotten lost. It is a history, among others, that every single person should know. So here goes.


There were certainly technological advancements before there was science, particularly in the field of warfare. But these advancements pale in comparison to those achieved in the scientific age. Take transportation for example. Right up until the late 18th century, the human speed limit was that of the horse. Then, in less than a century, it increased to more than 100 miles/hour. Then within 50 years, more than 600 miles/hour. Then within 20 years, more than 20,000 miles/hour. Many technologies have followed exponential paths since the dawn of modern science.


Where should we place the beginning of science? The ancient Greeks made some strides. Aristotle certainly made attempts to understand the natural world, and even did some experimentation, as well as making excellent observations. But Aristotle allowed his theorizing to jump far ahead of his data. For example, he theorized that all matter is composed of 5 basic elements, earth, water, air, fire, and aether. It’s not a bad theory, and if we leave out aether (which astronomical bodies were supposed to be made of) it turns out to roughly correspond to the states of matter – solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. But he really had no way to properly test these ideas, and like many ideas about nature, they turn out to simply be wrong.


Modern science really begins around 1600 with Galileo, although many would place it a bit earlier with Copernicus. But while heliocentrism was revolutionary, the METHOD is really much more important than whether you happen to get the right answer. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the issue of falling bodies. Aristotle had stated that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. Seems like common sense based on good observation. Heavier objects are certainly pulled toward the earth more strongly than lighter ones. This is amply illustrated by putting a pea on your foot, as opposed to an anvil. (I don’t recommend it.) And Aristotle noticed that “heavy” material like iron sinks in water faster than “light” material, like clay. But the universe is often more subtle than common sense would suggest, and there are often factors that we overlook. Galileo examined the problem in detail, not only theoretically, but practically. Upon careful reflection, he realized that Aristotle’s statement would lead to a logical absurdity – It couldn’t possibly work that way.


Galileo’s thought experiment is very neat. He pointed out that if Aristotle was correct, a 2-pound rock falls faster than a 1-pound rock. But what happens if you split the 2-pound rock into 2 1-pound rocks and join them with a string? Is this now 2 separate rocks, which must fall slower? Or is it still a single 2-pound rock, which must fall fast? What if you connect them with a cable? What if you glue them together? What if you wrap the cable around both and make a package? If Aristotle was correct, there would have to be some magical point at which 2 distinct objects suddenly “realized” they were one object, and instantly raced toward the earth much faster. But Galileo didn’t stop with the theorizing. He actually did the experiment. Ignoring wind resistance, all objects fall with the same acceleration.


Now you may well be wondering, if heavier objects are indeed pulled toward the earth more strongly, why don’t they fall faster? What did Aristotle overlook? The answer is inertia. Heavier objects resist acceleration more. Since inertia and gravity are both a function of mass, they exactly cancel each other out. All objects fall with the same acceleration. But then, you may ask, why does iron sink faster in water than clay? The answer is, it’s not about the WEIGHT of the iron, it’s about the density. The less dense a material is, the more buoyant it is. If the material is less dense than water, it floats. Take a piece of wood and a piece of iron of the same weight. Drop them in water. The wood floats. The iron sinks. It’s not about their weight. It’s about their density. The whole problem of falling bodies is an excellent example of the failure of common sense. For centuries, people merely accepted that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. They latched onto an authority, in this case Aristotle’s, and didn’t question it. They didn’t bother to actually find out. Real-world physics, chemistry, and biology are often counterintuitive, and common sense will often steer you wrong. Nature is subtle and complex.


But there is a more fundamental problem with the Medieval mindset. Suppose I throw a ball up in the air and observe its behavior. Then I ask, why did the ball behave the way it did? The Medieval answer is, “because you threw it, of course.” End of story. There is nothing more to be explained. Needless to say, this misses a lot of crucial information. A ball follows a very specific path. Once it leaves your hand, you aren’t acting on the ball at all, but other forces are. These forces follow precise mathematical patterns, and understanding them opens up whole new worlds of human potential. But the Medieval mind assumes that the ball, even after it leaves your hand, is under intelligent guidance. Everything is. Flowers opening, birds singing, volcanoes erupting, rain falling. So there is nothing more to say. Everything is under constant direction, like a play. Questioning it is like questioning why Darth Vader turns out to be Luke Skywalker’s father.  Because it’s in the script!  Furthermore, everything exists for human purposes. The earth is the center of the universe, and everything in the universe is there to fulfill human needs. All of this is theologically-based, of course, and all of these assumptions inhibit real exploration. Then science comes along and says, “Before we start making assumptions about everything, let’s examine processes closely. Let’s see if they can be understood as MECHANISMS, the same way a clock is a mechanism. Let’s see if nature follows mathematical patterns. If we find evidence of an intelligence driving processes, so be it. But let’s start without that.”


Here is another example. Suppose I walk up to a Medieval person and say, “the different colors you see are the result of packets of light, with different energies. Different materials reflect different combinations of these packets.” “Okay,” he says, “that sounds fine.” But then you tell him, “These packets are only a tiny fraction of all of the ‘light’ packets that exist. Most of them have energies outside the range of human vision.” He laughs in your face. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “Everything in the universe was put here by God for man’s purposes. What possible reason would God have for creating this vast amount of ‘light’ that we couldn’t see? Get real.” This kind of impediment to serious exploration is exactly why 19 centuries passed between Aristotle and Galileo.


The certainty that all was under constant, intelligent direction was especially strong when it came to astronomical objects, because the Medieval mind thought of the “heavens” as the realm of the divine. This is why the sky was seen as perfect and unchanging, and why the appearance of comets was almost invariably taken as a warning. The idea that one could predict the motions and appearance of comets, along with the moon, the planets, and the stars, years into the future would have caused the Medieval mentality to implode. Not to mention the idea that the earth was not the center of all things. Modern science was the smashing of these old dogmas.


The other thing that modern science instituted, which was quite rare in the Middle Ages, was measurement. Measurement is more than just observation. Before the thermometer came along in the 17th century, people only had vague ideas of cold and hot. A mercury thermometer is a pretty simple device. Even the ancient Greeks noticed that substances expand when heated. But for a thermometer to be considered useful, you have to VALUE precision. You have to understand that vague, qualitative observations are not enough. You have to REALLY BE COMMITTED to understanding how things work. Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519, was an incredible genius with a boundless curiosity. He made meticulous observations on human anatomy and conceived of such devices as the parachute and the helicopter. But he died before the scientific revolution. Imagine what he would have accomplished with the tools and methodology of modern science, and how many other da Vinci’s were spread out over the centuries, their talents wasted.


Science is about actually finding out how things work, not merely relying on our intuitions or our theorizing, and certainly not our theologies. Many of the pioneers of science were in fact devout people. But they had the courage to explore and let the evidence speak for itself, rather than forcing it to conform to their theology. Our theorizing can very much be colored by our biases and baggage. Science says, “I don’t care what you think makes ‘common sense,’ or what your pet theory is, or whether the truth makes you uneasy. I’m giving you a method to make good predictions, create technologies that actually work, and truly understand your universe. I’m giving you a method to counteract your natural biases and discomforts, and let reality speak for itself. Take it or leave it.” Our civilization has taken it, which has given us the vast improvements in the quality and quantity of life we enjoy.


Young boy writes math equations on chalkboard

Galileo’s contemporary Francis Bacon, and a bit later, Rene Descartes, are also critically important figures in the development of modern science. Descartes argued that mathematics should be used to study nature, and Bacon, critically, argued that experimentation should be emphasized, rather than mere contemplation, however brilliant. He also argued that Aristotle’s appeals to purposefulness in nature should be abandoned, in favor of finding simple mechanisms for processes. And finally, he promoted the idea that science should be about innovation – that it should aim to invent new things to improve the human condition.


From there, science was off and running. Isaac Newton. John Herschel. Charles Darwin. Albert Einstein. This list goes on and on. Engineering as a profession came into being. Inventors and entrepreneurs seized upon scientific discoveries and turned them into practical realities. New discoveries and inventions fueled still more discoveries and inventions. These effects snowballed and continue to do so.


Apologists for organized religion argue that scientists are as much bound to faith as the devoutly religious. Appeals to reason and naturalism are a matter of faith are they not? Yes, in a way they are. They are untestable assumptions upon which science is built. But this misses a critical point. The value of scientific as opposed to religious explanations for processes is not whether they can be justified in some ultimate philosophical sense. Their value is primarily pragmatic. Science has demonstrated that it yields predictions, prophesies if you want to call them that, which actually come true. It yields enormous technological progress. After 20 centuries, did religion produce chlorinated water, sewerage treatment, electrical power, or refrigeration, not to mention cures for common diseases, mass communication, or digital technology?


Suppose someone came along who could make very accurate predictions about the future, on most any subject. No explanations, no mechanisms, just very accurate predictions, beyond what science can produce. Science would face some very real and very stiff competition. Scientists would no doubt complain that there were no mechanisms provided. Since there were no mechanisms, there was no way for others to build on the predictions, to ask additional questions, or create new technology. There would no doubt be lots of theorizing about how the prophet must be in communication with some advanced civilization, or higher dimensional beings, or what have you. But the value of such predictive power would nevertheless be obvious to all.


If organized religion could actually do this, it would certainly give science a run for its money. One might argue that it still couldn’t give us new technologies in and of itself. But it would certainly be of great benefit. But organized religion has had plenty of time to produce results. Just one prophet, imam, or pope could have said, “That comet will reappear in 76 years. Many comets will appear and disappear over time, they are nothing to fear.” Just one prophet could have said one morning, “A tsunami will be here before the sun sets. We need to move away from the coast.” And the point still remains in our time. Let anyone, religious or not, who can make accurate predictions without recourse to science come forward and make them. Not retrospectively of course. “I predicted the recession.” “I predicted the earthquake.” Uh huh. So make another set of predictions, unambiguous predictions, today, and we’ll write them down and see how you do.


Apologists will argue that it was religious institutions and individuals that preserved scientific ideas from antiquity and carried out the exploration of nature through the Middle Ages. Indeed, we owe these institutions and individuals a debt of gratitude for this. But we also have to remember the purpose for which this was done. It was done to codify and promulgate religious dogma. The ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy were incorporated into the dogma, not seen as hypotheses to be tested. For 20 centuries, organized religion couldn’t even get straight that all objects fall with the same acceleration? That some comets appear regularly, predictably? That the sun is the center of our solar system? That malaria and yellow fever are transmitted by mosquitoes, not “bad air”? How much longer would these simple errors have stood without the scientific revolution?

big plastic pollution

very important plastic and trash pollution on beautiful lake

Of course there are always negatives to technological and social advancement. One of the most memorable lines in Jerome Lawrence’s play (and Stanley Kramer’s film) Inherit the Wind, about the infamous Scopes trial, is “Progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it.” I could rattle off lots of negatives that modern technology has given us – fission/fusion weapons, chemical and biological pollution, environmental destruction, overpopulation, enhanced disease transmission, new drug dependencies. There are often unintended consequences, and new technologies should always be approached with great care. But do we really want to go back to pre-industrial life? Do we want to live without chlorinated water, sewerage treatment, electricity, modern medicine, and all the rest? There is often a romantic nostalgia about the Middle Ages, a fantasizing about knights and princesses and chivalry. Fantasies are fine, but I doubt very many people actually want to live with the constant threat of cholera and typhoid. I doubt many people really want to live in times when women routinely died in childbirth, when babies were often stillborn, and children’s lives were routinely snuffed out.


For the next 30 days, I will post an essay every day on a particular aspect of science and the associated technology. This is not intended to be an exhaustive history on the subject. It is merely to point out many of the features of modern life that we tend to take for granted – things that the wealthiest, most powerful people on earth did not have just a few centuries ago. None of them came about simply because people “worked hard,” or prayed fervently, or engaged in endless debates about how many angels would fit on the head of a pin. They came about because of the scientific revolution – a commitment to reason, naturalistic explanations for processes, and the challenging of centuries of dogma.

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  1. Pingback: The Unnerving Implications of Incompleteness | David L. Martin

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