»  The Straggler, No. 33

July 4th, 2005

  Blinding Science


My son and I were, I'll admit it, a little miffed at not having won either First or Second Honors at the school science fair. We did get an

Honorable Mention: "Which kind of glue makes the strongest bond?" by Danny Derbyshire.

This was the Straggler family contribution. We had assembled five different kinds of adhesive, ranging from a Staples glue stick to an epoxy cement with a list of ingredients that looked to have been harvested on the planet Krypton, all "spheno-" and "poly-" and "chloro-." We had cut ten lengths of wood and stuck them together in pairs, one pair per adhesive, assiduously following the instructions on each product. Each stuck-together pair had then been put in the angle of Dad's folding ladder, erected on the back lawn, and had barbell weights hung from one of its components until the adhesive bond broke. The weights had been recorded and conclusions duly arrived at.

It was an impressive piece of research, and we cannot understand why it rose no higher in the judges' estimation than Honorable Mention. What was so superior about Grant Siele's "Cleaning Pennies," Kerri-Ann Giambruno's "Short-Term Memory," or Sara Goldenbaum's "Melting Ice"? Ice melts, duh. (Though we agreed that Jacob Roday's "How Moldy Is My House?" was a superior piece of work — deserved some kind of special award for grossness, in fact. Jacob: "I like to experiment with disgusting things.")

When I was a little more than my son's present age there was much talk about the Two Cultures, following C. P. Snow's famous 1956 essay. Not having arrived at any worldly understanding by that point, and having just read H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, I picked up a vague notion that the human species was splitting into two, a development whose end result would see languid literary intellectuals in velvet jackets, smoking Gauloises and perhaps drinking absinthe, discussing Boileau and Virginia Woolf in the upper world, while technicians in lab coats toiled away in underground caverns to supply these cultivated loungers with medicines and gadgets.

I now understand (the better, since reading Roger Kimball's fine New Criterion essay about it) that Snow's concerns were largely misplaced, his view of literary culture stunted, and his claims for the scientific outlook exaggerated. The arts and humanities are not mere entertainment, to be turned to for relaxation after a busy day spent solving differential equations; they are our templates for living, for governing ourselves and our societies. Nor can science offer any help with the knottier problems besetting the human race. It can remedy bad smells, bad pains, and bad roads, but not bad behavior, bad government, or bad ideas.

I have, though, always nursed a great affection and respect for science. The humility of good scientists when confronted with plain facts is a beautiful thing to see. I would go so far as to say that it represents one of the greatest moral advances the human race has yet made. Steven Weinberg, in his book The First Three Minutes, says this about the status of the cosmological theory he has set out to explain: "Can we really be sure of the standard model? Will new discoveries overthrow it …? Perhaps … However, even if it is eventually supplanted, the standard model will have played a role of great value in the history of cosmology." This is not, to put it very mildly indeed, an attitude commonly found among philosophers, theologians, or literary critics. I am similarly taken with science's admiration for elegance and economy of thought, for the most parsimonious explanation among all those that fit the observations.

Not all facts are plain, unfortunately, and scientists are subject to the same temptations as the rest of us. Given a mass of very approximate data that can be made to fit different interpretations, and given further the offer of a fat research grant from some U.N. agency or left-wing foundation, on the understanding that the interpretation likely to inspire further such grants will be the one that best accords with fashionable political dogmas, scientists prove to be as corruptible and capable of self-delusion as any absinthe-swilling Eloi, as the current controversy over global warming illustrates.

Nor does it help that much science is done in the academy, where the poisonous vapors of campus claptrap waft even into the physics lab. If you spend your working hours thinking very hard about difficult math or science, you will have little mental energy left for the careful consideration of political or social matters, and will be liable to take in uncritically whatever is in the air around you. That is why scientists are so often political idiots.

But the fact that scientists are too often suckers for political leftism does not alter the fact that their disciplines are, with their innate and, in the long run, unconquerable resistance to wishful thinking, essentially conservative in spirit. A key clue here — one that makes true suckers, if not intellectual traitors, out of left-wing scientists — is the contempt for science that is implicit in all leftist theorizing, from Marx's "scientific socialism," which proved so unscientifically reluctant to dump a bad theory when all that theory's predictions were contradicted by events, to the current postmodernist blatherings about science being a fraud perpetrated on the masses by ruthless white-male-heterosexualist-Eurocentric power elites.

Science, understood in its proper modesty — Roger Kimball quotes Matthew Arnold's phrase about "the tone of tentative inquiry, which befits a being of dim faculties and bounded knowledge" — is on the side of the angels. A proper respect for the calm disciplines of "-scopy" and "-metry" (that is, of observation and measurement) is an essential attribute of the civilized mind. It is not given to us to know very much about the inner workings of the world. That we know anything at all about them is miraculous. Who would have imagined, for instance, that carpenter's wood glue has more than 20 times the bonding power of mucilage?