Smart kids? The all rounders who are good at everything, even sport, the creative drop outs who could be good at lessons but chose not to be, the whizz kids at maths and music. All of them are increasingly reluctant to study science. Technological applications of science- maybe- but pure science, less and less. Yep, it is the second eleven, the B team, who more and more are heading into the labs now. While studying medicine appeals to conventional ‘smart kids’ ie. those good at lessons, and the sexiness of start-ups appeals to the greed factor, there is a very good reason why science is now seen as a subject for people with unnaturally narrowed vision. And since a major part of ‘smartness’ is the width of vision, then we must conclude that science in its conventional formats is in some kind of decline. A workable parallel would be, I suspect, theology in the 17/18th/ century. Though power still resided in theocratically informed institutions, the sheer complexity of theology no longer had any grip, no purchase on everyday life decisions. The whole damn edifice came crumbling down. Shelley publishes his ‘necessity of atheism’ and throws the baby out with the bathwater, but the world keeps going: strangely we didn’t need angels dancing on pins after all. Just as we don’t need the Higg’s Boson particle, suggestively named the ‘God particle’, a sure sign that science has left its useful and limited role as a procedure for finding out useful things and taken on the theological role of explaining in words why we are here. When smart people know such an answer resides in the realm beyond the limits of language.
Science, in the current model, has become hypertrophic development of simple curiosity. Curiosity is necessary to get beyond the everyday veil that shrouds the somewhat hidden and connected reality beneath. Science mimics deeper understanding by providing answers to what colour ‘really’ is, what ‘causes’ gravity (actually rather bad on that one) and yet these are somewhat trivial questions in the life of a normal human being who desperately wants to know who they should marry, what work they should do, how they can be a better person, and so on. So ‘smart’ people turn away from science. It’s boring, they say. Well, of course, it isn’t, it’s actually fascinating. But if you engage with professional science you will be drawn into ever narrowing areas of interest.
One function of science is to provide a working model of how to approach a simple problem. Another is to demonstrate how this years ‘truth’ is next year’s laughable folly- N rays and Phlogiston- come to mind. But the nub of the matter is this, the real crux of it: people in the past were just as smart as us and they long ago worked out how to approach truth. They didn’t need theology, science, maths or anything else. Sometimes they didn’t even need language as a study of Central Asian textiles will show, the patterns encoding certain immemorial truths and relationships of truths. So the big dividing line is this: either you imagine that everyone before the 20th century was thick or you realise that human beings have not changed in thousands of years and most of what we call progress is just window dressing. As the behaviour in every recent war has demonstrated.
Which brings me to the second reason why science isn’t studied by smart kids: WW2. Science, and its bedfellow complicated technology, brought us the atom bomb, gas chambers, machine guns, railways, high explosives, saturation bombing and numerous other ways of multiplying our murderous instincts. Give a child a toy gun and he plays happily, give him a real gun and expect some unfortunate accidents. Science and complex technology are the real gun. The toy gun has long ago been ditched. And when the toy becomes deadly, the toy ‘plays’ with us. You can see this every day in the way a car alters the behaviour of otherwise normal and polite people. So we must make special allowance for this modern distortion effect, and treble it for the effect of owning a nuclear power station or a giant dam.
But the purpose of this is not to cause undue concern about technological developments. They will, after all, be what will deliver us from the problems caused by earlier technological developments. That is, in effect, what ‘modern development’ is: a series of unbalanced situations solved by inventive machines that destabilise things in a different way, requiring more inventions etc. In the past war served a similar purpose. No, the purpose is to highlight the precise use of science to the individual in their search for the right path.
They may choose to work as a professional scientist to earn money or status. Fair enough. But in their real life, that which deals with their real progress in understanding, they may see ‘science’ as rather unimportant.
Remember: everything that is real can be communicated in simple language or simple images. Things of enormous subtlety and range can be conveyed this way. We have grown used to equating subtlety with complexity. One can become ‘lost’ in complexity, this is very different to appreciating ever more subtle distinctions of emotion or utility in a thing.
We can take this from science: be alert to anecdotal evidence- anecdotal evidence is the mulch, the growing medium of real discovery. Be alert to superstition and cult behaviour. Understand basic psychological needs of the human being that may have been lost when traditional culture was superseded by ‘modern’ cultures.
Recently I read passages from Plutarch’s Morals. In it he reveals a thoroughly ‘modern’ appreciation of mythology as a method of portraying psychological realities. In no way did he believe that mythological beings were real. But he knew that they had great utility in depicting a greater reality. So Plutarch was more advanced than the modern barbarian who denounces mythical beings and sees no utility in them, and would prefer the modern mythologies of string theory and Dawkinsian evolution.
Smart kids intuit that we aren’t the smartest people to have ever lived. That people 5000 years ago were just as smart as us. Anything that moves us away from this basic position is a hypertrophy, an over developed activity that needs no further encouragement. What we need to encourage (ie. stop discouraging or distracting from) is the search for real, not ‘scientific’ truth.