Discover more from Stoic Observations
Who Needs Science?
Could we recognize it if we saw it?
I just finished a really fun book by Andy Weir. He’s the author of ‘The Martian’ which was a great book and film. If you’re in my techie tribe, you know it. If you like Matt Damon, you probably know it. If you don’t know it and are interested in a suspenseful story, I think you would enjoy this latest book in which a reluctant hero needs to find a way to deal with whatever it is that is blocking out the sun and plunging Earth into a genocidal ice age.
Weir’s writing is doubly fun for me because even as he Sherlock-splains the discoveries of his protagonist as he moves from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, I am able to use my meta-scientific skill to figure out at the beginning of the paragraph what his non-technical audience is just about to learn by the end of it. Weir’s aptitude in this is akin to the clever Pixar formula for the stealthy encapsulation of adult humor in movies for kids. Don’t ask me for an example, that was another life, although I did voluntarily suffer through Toy Story 3. Ick.
But Earth is not on the verge of suffering an extinction level ecological disaster, and unlike the book, entitled ‘Hail Mary’, we haven’t needed to appoint a global czar to scour the planet for the brightest minds and run the Earth saving multi-quadrillion dollar mega-project. Our need for the brightest minds to do something like make universal quality education work remains casual enough to play infinite political games. At least that remains the case in America where we actually need marketing to ‘sell’ STEM and even invent the acronym in the first place.
While I’m on the subject of education let me take a moment to stoically observe the horrid irony of K-12. When I was toddler-bound in Georgia back in the mid-90s, the Spousal Unit and I understood the predicament of choosing public school vs private school. In public school, my kids would receive an inferior education but we’d save money and afford tutors and many extracurriculars. In private school, my kids would receive a superior education but we’d have to deal with puddinghead rich twits and their douchy offspring and their oversized influence. Our close friends had PTA horror stories from East Cobb County. When we finally decided to return to California, the dilemma reasserted itself but at least here we would have the benefit of much more family, more reasonably affluent family neighborhoods with good college prep public schools and the affordable Cal State University system. It worked out perfectly, at the mere cost of home ownership.
It is these sorts of bourgeois inequities that embed us American peasants in endless cycles of bickering. There was no national consensus on ‘school choice’ when my kids were in pre-school in 1997 and there still isn’t now that they’ve graduated college. It is this harsh and permanent reality that gives me reasons to doubt a lot of marketing that is pitched at my demographic. Consider the following:
This was tweeted across my purview this morning. How long ago was it that Amazon and Apple were reminding us the Black Lives Matter and that Parler should be left digitally homeless? Have we moved on? I can’t tell. Is it too soon to tell jokes? How many degrees open is that Overton Window? Like I give a rats. Propaganda is what it is, and enough knees will jerk so that it can be called progress, and the bickering thrash will generate media dollars one way or another. And so it goes.
Where does that leave science? Indeed what is the American public’s expectation of science anyway? I’m afraid to speculate, but I’m pretty sure that there is little more that we expect of science than the improvement of the technology that serves to bring comfort to our body mass indices. Nobody wants to do situps, but boy does that new Peloton stationary bike allow me to plug in my iPhone? Should I buy the Dyson or the Roomba for my new laminate flooring? And hey did you see the new Tesla Model 3? I’ll buy that for a bitcoin!
The understanding of something non-electronic like the behavior of a sneeze worth of viruses into a handkerchief is something we are not likely to learn any time soon. Nor is the sale of non-fiction science that is readable and informative going to incentivize venture capital to fund a new publishing house startup. We’re just going to have to wait for a cute teenage girl to say something on TikTok. By ‘we’ I mean the demographic target on our heads assigned to us by the marketing genius class that get paid to harvest our clicks. You know, and you can probably tell by my writing and my interests that I’ve never met anything resembling an editorial board in my life. I can’t really tell you how dissemination of critical information is actually supposed to work. But as you can see, it’s actually getting to our demographic via Twitter, USA Today and McDonalds. I wonder what is the name of the company that makes the cardboard containers for their french fries and who is the guy who had to change the printing equipment to replace the logo? If I had been on that editorial board I would have had them have 19 lollipops on the COVID icons instead of the 18 they chose. That’s just me.
So yeah we don’t trust Fauci and we don’t trust the CDC and we kinda trust McDonalds, right? So what the hell do such people need with science? I mean the scientific process requires people’s energy and focus to do well. I understand and appreciate the value of logic and consistency, but it doesn’t happen in the passive voice. Somebody has to do it, and that somebody has to eat and put their kids through school. Another entity I have yet to encounter is a grant board, or whatever it’s called. Just as most people never learn to use a semicolon properly, I have never learned how to write and submit a grant proposal. I understand this particular skill is absolutely crucial in the advancement of scientific research in America. So that’s kind of a captured industry. But is that scientific research pointed at life in America? You know, the kind of life we fuss about?
Somebody pointed out not long ago that if you look at the contemporary house in America, aside from wifi and computers all of the technology in it was pretty much worked out 60 years ago. There’s nothing new about your plumbing or electrical wiring or the concrete or other building materials. Sure you’re paying through the nose for that laminate flooring and you’re saving a little bit of money with the LED lighting, but your $3,000 refrigerator isn’t colder than the one made in 1955 and probably won’t last as long. Go ahead. Look at your backyard. Look under your kitchen sink. There is nothing in home construction, furnishing and repair that would challenge the scientific capabilities of one graduating engineering class of Purdue University with all due respect. So what the hell is going on in science that’s supposedly benefiting the common man? Why can’t we have affordable housing? Because our technology has allowed us to quickly build shiny new disposable housing.
Well, the common man might not die from cancer. There’s a fine multibillion dollar industry/racket. Excuse me while I speculate what a shorter lifespan might have done to turn over assets and powers of the much hated ‘Boomers’. Yeah I went there. Anybody want to guess how old the 1% is?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the scientific method be abandoned or de-emphasized. I’m saying we in the peasant public confuse scientific research with technology and are only demanding the technology of the idle rich. It’s self-fulfilling idiocy. When we talk about ‘the science’ these are merely appeals to scientific authority, which is a captive industry that is so desperate for grant money that the whole shebang can be politicized and propagandized into useless oblivion, or at least subordinated to the communication channels of Twitter via USA Today and the fine icon designers of McDonald’s french fry boxes.
I live outside of academia, but I have come to understand some of the trials and tribulations of those without sinecure. If you’re not tenure-track, you’re nobody. I simplify for effect but the adjuncts know what I’m talking about. Living in the shadow of ‘FAANG’ I understand as well how monetization rules everything around me. I hate the idea that a lot of incredibly smart and wise people cannot move with the assuredness their character and intelligence deserve. Or maybe they do and they are almost infinitely obscure, like pearls inside giant clams at the bottom of a sea of horseshit.
Here’s the difficulty. There is a metaphysics of scientific inquiry that we have all missed. In all of my searching, on my own, for a philosophical framework and a greater understanding and defense of Western civilization, I have been lacking the kind of overview that I am just now getting. I have done the deep dive under the horseshit and discovered some pearls. As far as I can see, they are dropping in plentitude from the works of Karl Popper and I will be expanding that through a couple of heavyweights named Kuhn and Feyerabend. That should keep me away from the XBox for a while. I thus promise to consider this summer if there is a chance whether or not those of us who claim to live outside of the postmodern box and directly engage with the truth of nature (and the nature of truth) are sufficiently girded to survive the eclipse of rationality here in the WEIRD world. Maybe we rationalists can save us from a semiotic swamp, maybe we’re just puppets in Baudrillard’s Matrix.
The first time I heard of Popper was from Gerard VanderLeuwen one of the sharpest wits I ever had the good fortune to meet over at The Well, that legendary and pioneering online forum. His blog, American Digest is one of the very few blogs I have ever seen where original poetry can be found. Gerard’s story is interesting enough and I encourage you to follow.