Saturday, January 31, 2009

Scientists and magicians

In the U. S. and many other places around the world, attitudes towards science are decidedly ambiguous.

This shows up in many different ways. During the last election, for example, various issues, about which science has much to say, were matters of contention. Global warming and climate change provide one example. Many issues related to sex and reproductive biology, including sex education and contraception, yield other examples. And of course, tangentially related to those issues was the embryonic stem cells issue. Then there's the matter of the need for protection of biodiversity and endangered species. Finally, opponents of evolution were afraid to make it a serious campaign issue, yet one of the presidential candidates was notably evasive on the question of how evolution should be taught in schools.

To the relief of most people who value science, the election turned out well:

Obama to restore science to its rightful place (1/20/09)
So, the 44th president of the United States has spoken. And what he said will please many supporters of science. Likewise, without explicitly mentioning the environment, president Barack Obama made it clear in his inaugural address today that the US needs to tackle global warming and switch to renewable sources of energy.

The speech will also please internationalists who feel that the US has lost touch with the rest of the world. Significantly for a US president, but less surprising given his African heritage, Obama called on Americans to reach out to and help the world's poorest citizens, clearly referring to the humanitarian and agricultural crises in parts of Africa.

But the nod to open science will be most welcome, given the political and ideological interference of his predecessor, who obstructed stem cell research and only grudgingly accepted that humans are driving climate change.

"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost," said Obama.

(That, of course, received widespread attention. Other reactions: here, here, here, here.)

There are several factors at work under the covers that help explain the political opposition to relatively straightforward science. Religious factors, obviously, play some part. Also economic factors, especially in cases where scientific considerations (related to the economics of energy production, and various public health issues, related to tobacco usage, for example) are in conflict with powerful economic interests.

So, what do magicians have to do with any of this?

Well, I've been re-reading Shakespeare's The Tempest, because I've also been re-watching Peter Greenaway's film adaptation, Prospero's Books.

Prospero, the protagonist, is the former Duke of Milan, who has been overthrown by his treacherous brother and exiled to a remote island. He's also a powerful magician, whose enrapture with intellectual pursuits rather than statecraft led to his overthrow.

Prospero can also be seen as a scientist of his era. Greenaway's film elevates the books to a starring role, acknowledged in the title. But this follows Shakespeare, who has Prospero explain how a sympathetic man of Naples (which city was the enemy of Prospero's Milan) furnished the deposed duke upon his exile with many of life's necessities – including books:
Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Greenaway links Prospero's books and his magic with more modern science. The books deal not only with occult arts (as was frequently the association in Elizabethan times), but more scientific topics like natural history, anatomy, and (especially) water.

In linking magic and science through the character of Prospero, however, Shakespeare was hardly alone among notables of Western literature. A recent (May 2008) essay by Philip Ball in Nature touched upon this theme. (Unfortunately, access to the article requires a subscription, but I'll quote a little.)

The topic at hand was the widespread panic last year, among nonscientists, but somewhat legitimized by journalistic sensationalism, that operation of the Large Hadron Collider could lead to the destruction of the universe. (How's that for human hubris?) Ball connects this hysteria with traditional literary associations between scientists and diabolical forces:

Of myths and men (5/2/08)
When physicists dismiss as a myth the charge that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will trigger a process that might destroy the world, they are closer to the truth than they realize.

In common parlance, a myth has come to denote a story that isn’t true, but in fact it is a story that is 'psychologically true'. A myth is not a false story but an archetypal one. And the archetype for this current bout of scare stories is obvious: the Faust myth, in which an hubristic individual unleashes forces he or she cannot control.

Fictional characters Ball mentions as being associated with intellectual overreaching include not only Faust, but also Dr. Frankenstein:
In part, the appeal of these stories is simply the frisson of an eschatological tale, the currency of endless disaster movies. But it is also noteworthy that these are human-made apocalypses, triggered by the heedless quest for knowledge about the Universe.

This is the template that became attached to the Faust legend. Initially a folk tale about an itinerant charlatan with roots that stretch back to the Bible, the Faust story was later blended with the myth of Prometheus, who paid a harsh price for daring to challenge the gods because of his thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust embodied this fusion, and Mary Shelley popularized it in Frankenstein, which she explicitly subtitled ‘Or The Modern Prometheus’. Roslynn Haynes, a professor of English literature, has explored how the Faust myth shaped a common view of the scientist as an arrogant seeker of dangerous and powerful knowledge.

Many other mythological figures could be mentioned, such as Prometheus. Roslynn Haynes' book, titled From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature is, unfortunately, out of print.

However, a slightly more recent book by Christopher Toumey – Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life – is still in print, and makes the connection between the diabolical-mad-scientist stereotype and social and political attitudes towards science in the U. S. (and elsewhere).

Other sterotypical mad scientists that Toumey mentions include Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, H. G. Wells' Dr. Moreau, and Ian Fleming's Dr. No (and Ernst Stavro Blofeld as well, I might add).

Does this hoary literary mythology of mad scientists influence public attitudes towards science? Like Philip Ball, I rather suspect the answer is yes, definitely. We see this all the time in the public hysteria surrounding biotechnology and "genetically modified organisms" and "frankenfoods", as the hysterics like to call them. There's also the ridiculousness over the resistance of the public to the possibility of food from cloned animals, even milk from cloned cows. (See here for an example.)

Now, apparently, this hysteria has spread to nanotechnology as well. There are, to be sure, legitimate concerns about health aspects of some current nanotechnology products. These certainly need to be carefully studied – and that is happening, due to the proper concern of many people who haven't forgotten all the major public health problems of a few pharmaceuticals (e. g. Thalidomide, Fen-phen (see here)) – not to mention things like tobacco and asbestos, which are problematical yet hardly products of modern science.

However, the objections to biotechnology are not only based on public health, but on "moral" issues as well (especially with respect to stem cells, cloning, chimeras, etc.) And we're seeing the same thing happen with nanotechnology – which some now think is also a "moral" issue:

For Nanotechnology, Religion In U.S. Dictates A Wary View (12/7/08)
When it comes to the world of the very, very small — nanotechnology — Americans have a big problem: Nano and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature, it seems, are failing the moral litmus test of religion.

In a report published Dec. 7 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, survey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed.

In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.

But it's about more than nanotechnology. It's about attitudes towards science in general:
The survey findings, says Scheufele, are important not only because they reveal the paradox of citizens of one of the world's elite technological societies taking a dim view of the implications of a particular technology, but also because they begin to expose broader negative public attitudes toward science when people filter their views through religion.

"What we captured is nanospecific, but it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology," Scheufele says. "It raises a big question: What's really going on in our public discourse where science and religion often clash?"

I'll come back to this aspect of things another time.

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Anonymous Kristin Alford said...

Magic and morals in science deserve further exploration. We've been thinking about the role of 'magic' in scientific exploration. And just last night I had a deep conversation about the 'moral imperative' of addressing global warming and whether mitigation was a scientific or moral issue. Thanks for teasing these ideas out in your post.

1/31/2009 10:38:00 PM  

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