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May 5, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Genius of Science

Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination – Bertrand Russell

There is something severely lacking in our society. Too many people seem to hold an aversion to the idea of scientific literacy. It’s the stuff old men in white coats do, with their funny coloured test tubes and crazy mathematical calculations. The general populace at large seems to hold the strangest viewpoint that science has no relevance to them at all. To quote the enamouring Dr Roderick Deane “bullshit”.

Science hasn’t always been so badly neglected in the public sphere. At the turn of the century science was big business, and politically important. Famous scientists were treated as conquering heroes, given loads of column inches, were invited to all the coolest parties and were drenched with political favour. Two very pertinent examples are relevant. On the second of August 1939 Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt, imploring him to investigate nuclear technologies, and brought to his attention the future realities of nuclear power. The rest as they say is history. Einstein’s influence saw Roosevelt pumps millions into nuclear research and development, evident in the construction of the Manhattan Project. American Presidents were not taking conference calls with hypocritical, closeted, drug addled, far right evangelists. They were listening to some of the greatest minds of their time. Generally a good idea.

Whether or not you agree with the importance of scientific development into nuclear technologies is another debate. But the example does point out the power that science played in the early half of the 20th century.

While Einstein’s letter is a good example of personal scientific influence — probably due in part to Einstein’s own personal fame — there were other tangible social movements during this time. The world had entered the atomic age, and a chain reaction of interest had sparked off among the general populace. Its no surprise that the 1950’s is often thought of as the birthplace of the ‘nuclear’ family. Back then people actually cared about the future of their societies. And they realised that to do that properly, they needed to give the scientists the support they needed.

The Russians across the divide also caught onto the unifying force of scientific literacy. Lenin is often quoted as saying “Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. Aside from his Marxist rhetoric he makes a good point. If you want your societies to function and improve — you need to have a steady source of reliable energy. The Russian’s valued educational endeavours so highly they created entire national universities devoted to particular industries — such as engineering and rocket physics.

All these societies had the right idea. So what’s gone wrong? Why do over 45% of Americans still believe that a creator god made man, and that the earth is under 6000 years old? Why do New Zealanders still hold onto a draconian assessment of nuclear technology and genetic modification as unsafe and unsustainable projects? There are arguments for and against many scientific endeavours. Not everything that comes from our physicists, seismologists or genetic biologists is going to be useful. Some of their research may even border on the unethical. But why we don’t want to even have this debate is completely flabbergasting. It appears that over the last thirty years there has been a gradual erosion in public perceptions of the beauty of science, and its importance to our future. Instead, the once mighty doctrine has been replaced with a stereotypical, and vacuous image — one of crackpot theorists, madmen and unethical frankenstien-esque loons. Our own political representation belies this fact. Only two out of one hundred and twenty one parliamentarians can lay any claim to a proper understanding of the pursuit for scientific knowledge — Pete Hogsdon and Paul Hutchinson. There is more representation of convicted drunk drivers in parliament then true scientists. What a disgrace.

There is no singular cause for this inexcusable retreat from intelligence to ignorance. It could have been LSD tripping post modern prosetlyzing hippies in the 60’s. It may have been the rabid antiwar anti-chemical anti-technology envirofacists of the 70’s. Perhaps it is due to the rise of evangelical fundamentalist religions in both the west and east. Or maybe it stems from the scientific community itself, which could never recover its public image after the death of the glorious and eloquent Carl Sagan (tear).

Our communities need to wake the fuck up and take a reality check. As a general populace we need to make sure we are constantly educating ourselves about scientific issues. We need to make sure we are not ignorant and attitudinal in our (often vehement) opposition to the progress of science. Our societies need to become more scientifically literate, because it is only then that we will be able to help our elected representatives formulate better policy for the future.

Science is not evil or unethical. Science is not an affront to religion. Science will not destroy bio-diversity or kill the environment. Science is the future. And it always has been. Learn to love it.

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About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

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