When I was a wee undergraduate astronomy student, my favorite activity was serving as a Teaching Assistant to the core astronomy lab. For some reason, I enjoy helping others to learn about the universe or something. Anyway, one year the chair of the Honors program at Villanova asked the Astronomy department to create a special class for their Honors students – presumably, the core astronomy course wasn’t challenging enough for their students. We agreed and I was set to TA the lab. We found it to be a rather challenging experience, not because they were testing the limits of our knowledge, but because we were very rapidly testing the limits of the students’ tolerance of ideas outside of their area of study.
One example was a student who was incensed at the idea that we know the age of the universe and that it is expanding. Evidently, this knowledge was in conflict with his understanding of the universe as taught to him by Aristotle, Kant, and others. In other words, he accepted the tenants of philosophy as fact and rejected everything he learned in our class that conflicted with it.
Of course, that’s just one example, but I could certainly give others. And my tales are hardly unique – there has been some pushback from against science from the Humanities for quite some time now, so this is nothing new. In fact, scientists (myself included, in the most generous use of that term) have been long been accused of amoral reductionist thinking that ignores the “magic” of the world. There’s even a term for this view of the world, Scientism (1)As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing.
But today I read piece by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, that is the best defense of science I’ve ever seen. There are hundreds of gems to mine from the article, but I’ll whet your appetite with this:
The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.
[ + ]
|1.||↑||As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing|