Thursday, March 12, 2009

The progress of all humanity

A few days ago, brome grass linked us to President Obama's Memorandum on Scientific Integrity, which affirms that government should not tailor scientific and technological information to a political agenda. Perhaps more encouraging, the President shows a respect for science -- in general, as a way of knowing -- that has been conspicuously absent for the past eight years. He intends to advance the cause of science in America, he says: "By doing this, we will ensure America's continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. And that is essential, not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity."

Does science contribute to the progress of humanity? It is easy to list advances in science and technology that most of us value -- from antibiotics to the internet. You could also tote up a list of things we could do without -- from nuclear weapons to global warming.

I once visited Selborne village in England, where Gilbert White lived in the late 18th century and wrote his delightful Natural History of Selborne. The village has been preserved almost untouched by two centuries of scientific and technological progress, and a wonderfully charming place it is. As I walked the paths that White walked, and sat in the beautiful church on the village green where White presided, it was easy enough to wonder if we haven't lost something as important as what we have gained. Read White's Natural History or his journals and you'd never know there was anything in the world but bliss. Ah, to be a country curate in such a place at such a time -- illusory as that bliss might be.

Each one of us will make a judgment of what constitutes "the progress of humanity," and to what extent science and technology represent an advance. I suspect the overwhelming majority of us would not turn back the clock. I could live without plastic pop bottles and GM corn, but I wouldn't want to forego scientific medicine, clean water, sterile parturition, and Hubble photographs of deep space. Most of all, I value the scientific way of knowing, based on reproducible, peer-reviewed evidence, gathered and analyzed -- in so far as possible -- free of prejudicial influence. Science is a global way of knowing independent of nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, politics and religion, and to the extent that it abbreviates the causes that divide us it is a precious gift we inherit from the past. It is gratifying to have a President who speaks not just to scientific progress, but also to "all humanity."

Now, if we could only figure out how to combine Gilbert White's scientific frame of mind with the sustainable beauty of his Selborne village.