This guest post is authored by John Rember
In my sophomore year of college I enrolled in a course that had given generations of students a painless way to satisfy the liberal-arts science requirement. It was known as Rocks for Jocks, and the final exam was the easy identification of every rock in a box. If you wanted an A in science, you took geology.
But the first day of geology class, a new professor announced Rocks for Jocks was over. The faculty of Arts and Sciences was determined to bring rigor into the geology program. We were now in a science class, and he was going to teach us science, no matter what had been taught in the past.
The final exam had nothing to do with a box of rocks. It asked for a coherent explanation of the chemistry and resulting crystal structures of basaltic minerals under varying conditions of temperature and pressure. I had studied my ass off, and was still grateful for the B-minus I received.
Along the way I had been drilled on high-temperature physics and the dynamics of dissolved gasses, and how aluminosilicate, with its strong chemical bonds, makes country rock hang together. I can still tell you about the relationship between plagioclase and orthoclase, information I haven’t used in forty-odd years.
Other aspects of the course have become more important over the years. The professor was the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who delighted us with lectures on why Godzilla and King Kong would die of heat stroke before they wrecked a single city, and why Mothra wouldn’t be able to fly unless the atmosphere had the density of water. Later, when I read Gould’s books, his sentences echoed the clear thinking that had brought the realities of classical physics into his paleontology lectures.
In one of those books, Gould went beyond classical physics and applied chaos theory to paleontology, and developed a refinement of evolutionary theory known as punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium, put much too simply, suggests that species stabilize for millions of years until something happens and most of them die. Each flowering of evolution is simply natural selection, operating in a world full of empty ecological niches. Ten million years after a mass extinction, the earth has a whole new zoo.
The agent of extinction is climate, if climate includes asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, the sudden transformation of methane clathrates into atmospheric methane, and the appearance of capitalist hominids.
Punctuated equilibrium has been accepted by most evolutionary scientists, but if Gould were alive today, he’d be subjecting it to his own scientific skepticism. He consistently used science to undermine pseudoscientific certainty, magical thinking about technology, and the appropriation of scientific metaphors by non-scientists. He was particularly hard on people who tried to use science to enforce racist policies or determine standards for intelligence. But he questioned his own work just as much as he questioned the work of the more reckless and less intelligent people who also called themselves scientists.
The scientific method is just a powerful way to process data, Gould told us. Anyone who makes a religion of science doesn’t understand it. Certainty isn’t the point. Asking the right questions is the point. Any hypothesis can be overturned by new data, and there’s always new data.
So in college I learned to believe in a method, rather than in the data it processed. My geology course made it hard for me to believe anyone’s didactic scientific pronouncements, especially when they posed as prophecy.
If all this sounds deeply conservative, it is. To bring science into any controversy is to introduce shades of gray forbearance where once all was foam-at-the-mouth black and white. But while the scientific method is slow, if you’d like to see through the cloud of bullshit generated by bought-and-paid-for scientific experts, it provides some useful optics.
So, forty years later. Stephen Jay Gould is dead of mesothelioma, possibly contracted from one of the large blocks of asbestos fibers that were used as teaching aids in college geology labs back in the day. I remember watching a geology lab assistant peel a long feathery fiber from one of those blocks and wave it at us while lecturing on crystal structure. “You can make clothes from these crystals,” he said.
As a civilization, we just didn’t know. Or if we did know, we lacked the ability to name the idiocy and blind malice that underlay consumer culture. When the dying miners in Libby, Montana, were presented with evidence of what working in asbestos mines had done to them, some of them refused to believe it, much like some Jews walking down the steps to Auschwitz’s showers refused to believe they were walking into gas chambers. The deliberate stupidity required to construct an Auschwitz or an asbestos industry—stupidity elevated to the status of evil—is beyond the capacity of human intelligence to believe in it.
In his later writings, Gould demolished the cover that so-called scientific experts provided for lethal technologies, but that has not kept whole industries from continuing to employ science PhDs who will testify that dangerous and useless products and procedures are safe and effective.
After college I started working as a medical writer and had almost finished a book on heart disease before the company I was working for went broke. For six months I had read medical textbooks and peer-reviewed cardiology studies and talked to cardiologists, and I knew a bunch about the human heart and its maladies.
But I also knew something about the impossibility of designing study parameters and interpreting results. Briefly put, you can never identify all the causes of a heart attack. You can never identify all the effects of a drug on a human heart or on the human life it maintains.
So you can have the famous Framingham Study, which tracked forty thousand people over fifty years, identifying as many risk factors for heart disease as possible, and when all the data is in you’ll find that you missed a major risk factor or came to the wrong conclusion about a drug or procedure. Every postulated result is subject to argument. The data that the Framingham Study has produced will be mined for years by teams of people using ever more sophisticated methods of analysis to promote their competing hypotheses.
If you want to see in how many different directions the same data can be stretched, take a look at Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If that book doesn’t shake your faith in the ability of science to know anything for certain, nothing will.
“By the summer of 2010,” is the opening phrase of a chapter in a history that will be written in 2020. I’d give anything to read the rest of that sentence right now, but the nature of future histories involves a tedious waiting for verification. But here are some guesses:
“… world population was approaching 7 billion humans.”
“… atmospheric concentrations of CO2 had reached 394 ppm.”
“… pollinator activity was declining over broad areas in the central and southwestern U.S.”
“… it was clear that the U.S. Congress could not serve as an effecive regulator of international corporations.”
“… the rate of North Korean plutonium production was ten times what it had been two years before.”
“… Dr. Weltentod had been retired from bioweapons work for ten years. Alzheimer’s was making it hard for him to function, and he was becoming more and more paranoid and isolated. But the freezer in his basement was still humming away, and the samples he had smuggled out of the lab decades before were still intact.”
You can have fun doing this sort of thing, but you won’t be much wiser for it.
The lesson here is that the present can’t reveal the truth of our lives, but future historians can. I’d like to talk to one of them. Preferably a human one, which limits the time frame we can talk about.
There are plenty of exponential curves and feedback loops that humanity is sitting on. Common sense suggests a subset of them will prove broadly lethal. I’d like to know which ones they are. I won’t find out until it’s too late. It’s already too late.
As military historians have shown, the generals who study the last war to fight the next one end up losing. History is a lousy prophet, especially when solipsistic prognosticators like Toynbee and Spengler get in the act.
A better prophet is common sense, which as the saying goes, isn’t common. It’s the complex dark brother of empiricism. It’s a blend of intuition, instinct, received knowledge, and perception melted together in the crucible of individual will. It can desert you when you most need it. Still, it’s helpful to apply it to some current situations, because you can know more through common sense than through science. Here are some spur of the moment, common-sense truths:
—If you take a planet with a history of climate phase-changes and introduce huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into its atmosphere you’re going to get a climate phase-change.
—Genetic engineering, antibiotics, and viral targeting of cancer cells are generating unintended consequences.
—The Iraq and Afghanistan wars will never have happy cost-benefit ratios unless you discount the value of human life to zero.
—Huge disparities in economic and political power will produce civil war and tyranny.
—Human population will crash rather than plateau because complexity has a momentum all its own.
—Deepwater oil wells are now politically and economically unviable due to their effects on ocean and shoreline environments.
—The scientific method is too slow to have an impact on any of these things.
If Stephen Jay Gould was alive today, he’d be pissed. A lifetime of debunking, and what does he get for it?
—A parade of expert witnesses in front of Congressional committees, contradicting each other but somehow reinforcing Congress’s naïve faith in pseudoscience.
—In the public mind, a weird equation of science and technology, when in fact they have little in common and often act as antagonists.
—A medical establishment so eager to prolong life that it’s willing to redefine life to prolong something.
—A general unwillingness to use simple pocket calculators to extrapolate identifiable trends.
—Magical thinking in the face of real data.
—The exploitation of honest scientific uncertainty by unscrupulous corporations.
—The willingness of almost everyone to leave the Now and return to the Clinton era, when it was possible to project one’s self into to the future, in the form of optimistic ideas that grandchildren could understand or undamaged DNA those grandchildren would have.
I’ve meditated myself into a dark place. But it’s not the fault of the scientific method. Rather, it’s a result of reading the headlines and using common sense to interpret them. And maybe a recent re-reading of Jaques Ellul’s The Technological Society tipped me a little more than usual toward techno-nihilism. Ellul is pretty convincing about his intuition that technology exists as a force in and of itself, one indistinguishable from death.
Ellul is no scientist, he’s a humorless Jesuit anarchist with literal-minded translators, but he’s worth reading if only because he knew enough in 1960 not to divide technology into Bad (the Bomb) and the Good (the new wonder drug Thalidomide). He declared a pox on all the houses of technology, calling technology a threat to human liberty and consciousness. If he were alive today, he’d be grimly satisfied at the fulfillment of his vision and delighted at getting a front-row seat at civilization’s upcoming auto-da-fe.
There’s a thought experiment that suggests things could be a good deal worse. If safe and easy-to-construct fusion plants could be built in every community, and if a quickly-rechargeable battery the size and shape of an automobile gas tank could be made to power a car for four hundred miles between charges, we could have the 20th Century, with its limitless technological horizons and murderous social arrangements, all over again.
Jung said that it’s hard to see the lion that has eaten you. But if you’re open to your experience, you can probably at least tell that you’ve been eaten, and by a lion.
The trouble with metaphors like Jung’s is that they can apply to almost anything. These days, the lion can be the petroleum industry, big banks, dying oceans, climate change, radical fundamentalism, techno-survivalism, precious metal hoarding, or Facebook. No matter what the lion is, you’re going to end up as lion shit.
Chaos theory has provided lots of metaphors for things that have nothing to do with chaos theory. “A sensitive dependence on initial conditions” may work to communicate the mechanics of ecosystems and natural selection, but it doesn’t add much to discussions of architecture and juvenile law and the economics of the automobile industry, places where I’ve seen it used lately. Political pundits or social critics or economists should stay away from the language of chaos theory, unless we want to end up with the punctuated-equilibrium equivalent of social Darwinism.
Stephen Jay Gould had a joy in finding a new rock or fossil or previously unremarked feature of a petrified anatomy. Any of these things placed him on the edge of the unknown, where all certainty was in danger of being overthrown. He was comfortable and happy and clear-eyed in that place.
When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, he saw himself again at the brink of the unknown. He lasted twenty years on the edge of death, noting in passing that you had no need to believe in statistics if you were an individual cancer patient. As individuals dealing with a malignant culture, we could learn from his example.
John Rember has been teaching writing for thirty-five years. He’s the author of two collections of short stories and a memoir. His next book, to be published in 2011, is MFA in a Box, a Why-to-Write Book. You can read more about him and his writing at johnrember.com.