I have a friend, a fella whom I’ve known for years, whom I like and admire, and who went to the great climate march recently. Let’s call him Homo Sapiens.
Sapiens put a picture of himself on his Facebook page — yes, I admit it, I still do Facebook. He was carrying a placard, printed out in the approved 350.org color scheme, that read, “Teach science!”
Now the pedant in me immediately wondered, what the hell is “science”? Last I heard, there were only sciences: physics, chemistry, herpetology and so on. Grand unification seems to be some ways off. But this wonderment rapidly gave way to another: What the hell was my old pal Sap doing saying such a thing?
He’s a smart guy, but his education was purely literary; he doesn’t know the first thing about any science. I doubt that he could tell you what the law of gravitation really says, or how Copernicus was right and how he was wrong, or the relationship between a watt and a volt, or what was interesting about Darwin’s finches. “Teach science?” Nobody ever taught Sap any science at all, and he wouldn’t have taken to it if they had tried.
I’m afraid that what old Sap meant, by holding up this placard, was something which could be unpacked more or less as follows:
There are all these stupid benighted people out there who think that the world was created day before yesterday, who don’t believe in evolution, whatever the hell that is, or in global warming. These people have a bad belief system. It needs to be replaced with a good belief system. Like… science! Teachers, do your thing! Students, listen to your teachers! Parents, shut the fuck up and leave it to the professionals!
The problem here is that what makes ‘science’ a good thing is that it is not a belief system. Sap, I suspect, thinks that there are people who believe in Genesis and other people who believe in ‘science’ — people mostly rather like himself.
Now there are a number of things wrong with this analogy, starting with the fact that believers in Genesis are quite likely to have read the book at some point, while Sap has certainly never peeked into the Origin of Species, not to mention any technical discussions of atmospheric chemistry.
But even more importantly, it’s apples and oranges. Biblical fundamentalism is a belief system, but science is an activity; a very worthwhile one, whose work product is always and only provisional hypotheses, subject at any time to revision or, for that matter, repudiation. The history of science makes this very clear; but Sapiens knows as little about the history of science as he does about ‘science’ itself.
Science, for real scientists, is a job, something they do; not a faith commitment, a body of dogmata that they believe in. This is precisely what constitutes its appeal and value.
But I’m afraid that what brother Sap means when he says ‘teach science’ is very much a matter of indoctrination. I don’t suppose that Sap cares much whether kids emerge from high school able to explain Avogadro’s number or Planck’s constant. But he would rather they were listening to jolly jokey Neil Degrasse Tyson, retailing his smooth popularized certainties and potted chronicle of progress on NPR, than so some wild man who doesn’t have a degree from a good school and who exhibits an unhealthy interest in the Epistle to the Romans.
Sap’s fideistic attitude toward ‘science’ is highly characteristic of the tribe to which he and I both belong. It’s part of our self-identification: we’re the party of enlightenment and, even more important, of expertise. Sap doesn’t understand the climate scientists’ reasoning; but he believes it, because they’re the duly ordained experts. Teach ‘science’! — but there’s no urgent need to teach any actual sciences. That is to say: teach belief, rather than content or method.
I think the climate-science boys are probably right, though I’m so poorly informed on the subject that I have no right to an opinion. And even if they’re wrong, I wish we’d act on the implications of their hypotheses. I wish we’d rip up all the asphalt and ban the manufacture of cars. I wish that everybody who didn’t live in a shack in the woods, ten miles from the nearest neighbor, lived in an apartment two blocks from a subway line. I wish every roof were covered with solar panels. I wish that air travel were a once-in-a-lifetime experience — if that — and that container ships were propelled by sail power. I wish we had a walloping carbon tax — as long as it’s rebated, on a strict per capita basis, to every man woman and child. All the things we might do in a desperate last-ditch effort against climate change are well worth doing for any number of other reasons — except, except! teaching people to believe the experts.