The Tyranny of Science?

Is technology all that matters?

Photo: Giedre Raminate. Source: Refe

I’m an advocate and science and engineering. I was a science major in college. Three of my children are engineers. I have family members who design rockets and power systems. But I’m a little uncomfortable with the exclusive emphasis on science and math these days. Radio stations have special STEM reports to discuss trends in education. When a college has to shut down a department, it’s usually something like literature or Latin—rarely physics or chemistry.

Even more disturbing is the assertion by policy advocates that their recommendations will be based on “pure science.” But there’s nothing pure about science. Science just describes what scientists do, and scientists are people with interests and agendas like the rest of us. Over 230 years ago Immanuel Kant explained that we never really know what is objectively out there. Rather, we creatively project order onto the “brute facts” in order to give them meaning. “The intellect does not derive its laws from nature,” he writes, “but prescribes them to nature.”

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we learn of scientists who fabricate results or plagiarize or “discover” truths in line with the political agendas of their funding sources. Where you stand usually depends on where you sit. Some of the most important science—that rarely gets noted—consists of trying to replicate previously published research. Notable scientific frauds like cold fusion and water memory were debunked in this way.

Nevertheless, there is an objective reality out there, and humanity has made tremendous progress by understanding how nature works. Advances in agriculture, for example, have reduced famine and starvation around the world. But science at best advances our knowledge. It doesn’t tell us what to do with it.

The best examples of science in everyday life combine technological competence with style and elegance: the Eiffel Tower, a Lamborghini Miura, Apple’s original iPod. In these we see form and function combine to give us a delightful sense of aesthetic pleasure. But you won’t learn about design and aesthetics in chemical engineering classes.

1967 Lamborghini Miura. Photo Michael Barera. Source: Wikipedia

That’s why our education needs to be liberal as well as technical. The future doesn’t just belong to data scientists and A/B testing, important as these may be. Because not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Douglas Tengdin, CFA

Charter Trust Company

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