I’m a compulsive liar. Actually, that’s not true.
At any rate, I’ve established my right to make fallacious statements for the sake of illustration. So here’s another one: I can’t read.
If someone tells you this in real life, it most likely awakens feelings of pity or distaste. On the other hand, what if someone said to you, “I can’t do math.”
Most people would probably be wholly sympathetic and heartily in agreement. The point is, society places a great deal more value on one field of study than the other. Science, math, and engineering are three fields in which people make the assumption that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Historically, people also built the Maginot Line, bled themselves with leeches and backed Reaganomics.
People can be stupid.
Most biotech companies don’t plan on feeding the world with their genetically engineered crops. They plan on putting third-world farmers out of business by producing huge harvests with cutthroat efficiency. Companies like Monsanto have already had some success at this.
Boeing Aerospace uses kerosene-based rocket fuel in its new offshore launch system, which leaves large kerosene slicks in the South Pacific with each successful launch.
Many U.S. drug companies write scripts and produce newsreels, which they send to local TV news affiliates across the country. Each of these scripts is read by your local anchor with no disclaimer. They do this to create public demand for new drugs and put pressure on the FDA to clear products before they are tested properly.
Quite a few biotech, aerospace and pharmaceutical companies have one thing in common these days: ethical depravity.
A great number of Americans, including much of the press, is under the impression that science is still an objective inquiry into the nature of the universe. Ideally, perhaps it is.
But science is big these days. And to do big science, you need big money — the kind that only the government and large companies can produce. The truth of the matter is that science today contains overwhelming corporate interests.
So chances are you won’t hear about science much on the news and if you do, you’ll hear the things that Monsanto and Boeing want you to hear.
Why do tech companies get away with this? Why doesn’t the press report them? Because people aren’t interested in science. People aren’t interested because they don’t have a solid background in the sciences. Science, after all, is not like the humanities. It is not like art. Or so people seem to think.
I disagree. Make no mistake about it: science is art.
Perhaps the single greatest obstacle to learning science is understanding the motive behind it. Behind the equations and the graphs lies the same basic desire that gives rise to art. It is the desire to make sense of the universe.
A novel is an experiment of sorts. It is full of characters and events resembling ones in the real world. But it is not the real world. It is a controlled environment and when we read it, we can impose its neat and orderly design on the nonsensical world around us. It helps us build order from chaos.
The same is true of painting, of music or of history for that matter.
It is also true of science. The basis for science is math. Math is something we make up. If you don’t believe me, lift your hand and hold up two fingers. Unless you are a freakish oaf, one is bigger than the other. Should it count for more? If this seems like nitpicking, that’s because it is.
Two fingers are two fingers, regardless of their size. Two fingers are two fingers because we say so. That’s because math is something we make up for our convenience. It is a story of sorts, to help us make sense of the world.
If there is an exact equation for weather patterns or the Alaskan moose population in a given year, we will never know it. The universe is too complex to locate every variable or catch every detail in problems like these.
But we can come close. We can do this in the same way that history comes close to the truth, that paintings come close to capturing a landscape or that novels come close to capturing the way we feel. These are the tools we use to make sense of the world.
We can never perfect any study or any art form. However, we are still obligated to try. The world would make no sense if we did not.
In our new century, science will have a more direct impact on our lives than ever before. People become irate over the corruption of art and the corruption of history.
Perhaps it is equally important to prevent the corruption of science — even if it means attending an occasional math class. I hope I see you there.
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science/technology editor and is currently majoring in “Sciences in the Media” via the individual studies program. His features appear every second Tuesday.