Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Rational science for an irrational world

Nanotech -- even within the narrow definitions of nanotech that we can all agree upon -- cannot be viewed outside the cultural, societal and even religious contexts in which it is emerging. Scientists should know, both by bitter experience and by opening up a history book to just about any era, that most of humanity does not accept or reject a scientific or technological innovation based purely on the data put before them.

It's one of the issues I attempted to bring to light in my NanoKabbalah report for Salon a few months ago and in the lively discussions that followed.

Here's a report on a new study that reflects this science/cultural clash perfectly. Actually, the researcher's own internal confusion his study caused is also a further illustration of this dance between rational science and irrational humanity:

    A new analysis of research into public perception of science in 40 different countries appears to have proven a widely-held assumption - that the more a person knows about science, the more they support scientific activity.

    ... Despite having established this link, however, Dr (Nick) Allum (from the University of Surrey in Guildford) warns that it is not reasonable to assume that improving people's scientific knowledge will boost public support for research, or encourage more young people to study scientific subjects.

    ... Dr. Allum argues that an individual's level of scientific knowledge is just one of many factors explaining their attitudes towards science. He believes that other factors, such as moral values, religious beliefs and political leanings, may be far more important.

    So despite having established a link between public levels of scientific knowledge and their support for the field, it appears that the job of boosting popular support for science will require more than simply additional science education. 'It's all horribly complicated,' admits Dr Allum. More here

Religion. Superstition. Ideology. Dogma. Scientists can ignore them, mock them, place themselves above them at their own peril. As the results of this latest U.S. election shows, they could end up scratching their heads and wondering why they're again the loyal opposition.

I'm not only talking about the religious right, but also those on the dogmatic left who have already tried and convicted nanotechnology based on their own fervent, religious-like preconceptions of how the world works to screw he poor and the environment.

Left on the cutting-room floor in NanoKabbalah was this (and these are, admittedly, some notes and thoughts that need further development, so go easy on me):

    ... Not the abstract "society" of a scientist's dream - one that will listen to scientific explanations and reach "correct" conclusions based on the strength and logic of their arguments, but the real society that's out there - the one that laughs at, or adores, Madonna and wears red strings, the one that crowds around old barns in run-down villages to gaze at a stain that they swear is the image of the original Madonna, the one that drops to its knees and faces Mecca five times a day, or faces toward Jerusalem every Friday night to welcome the bride of Shabbat.

    That's the true "society." The SciFi fantasy of a society ruled by science and logic will never come to pass. But the way the science establishment interprets "societal and ethical implications" is a top-down process - first defining the parameters of the debate and dictating scientific truth, then beginning the ethical discussion with that set of limited assumptions.

    The biotech industry was set back five years due to public rejection of genetically modified organisms. While scare tactics and pseudoscience by the environmental movement was partly to blame, so too was this "top-down" attitude taken by a scientific establishment that was much too self-important to bother with public attitudes and perceptions.

    These days, there are many people who feel religious in a kind of "spiritual" sense, and pick and choose what they want from a salad bar of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and others.

    The trend toward Kabbalah - which itself borrowed from the ancient Greeks and Buddhism - is part of this phenomenon. This new, vague "spirituality" is an entirely different phenomenon than closed-minded, violent fundamentalism within all religions that you so often see in the news.

    No, this "other" kind of religious renewal is even the ethical foundation for many on the left, and for some in the environmental movement who are now beginning to filter nanotechnology through this worldview.

    So, when they see their foundations being simplified or falsified and mocked by the science community, it's really not a surprise that they end up thinking of science as part of the problem, since scientists appear to lack any kind of moral or ethical roadmap to guide them along as they develop this new technology.

There is much more to be said about this, including the question of technology for "human enhancement" (which promises to link nanotech to the next "stem cell style" political/religious uproar), but I'll stop here for now.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Zeno, nano and quantum cwaziness
The fundamental (not fundamentalist) 'why'
NanoKabbalah Jihad
Barking at scientific dogma
NanoKabbalah in Salon on my birthday: Coincidence?

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