Science (Sigh!) Ends

By Balaji Prasad

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
~ William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

The man in the white coat puts down his beaker and pipette, and rummages a little frantically in his pocket for the amulet that will protect him as he goes to meet the chief who is going to put him through the third degree for the snafu that recently occurred in their facility. He mops his face with a big handkerchief, wiping the beads of sweat that have started to dot his brow. He curses the air-conditioning system under his breath, knowing at some level that it is not really the faulty cooling outside that is causing the heating inside.

“Scientists are human too!" he says indignantly to no one in particular, and starts to head out of the room, the amulet, as he rolls it around between his fingers, providing some reassurance that he is not all alone in this dark and treacherous world.

Scientists don't have to be scientific

Indeed, scientists are human. This means that self-concern, emotion and all the human frailties that are observed and accepted as part of “being human" are present in people who are labeled “scientists" too, just as it is in everyone in general.

Why is it important to understand this? Why now?

Clearly, the recent pandemic has put “science" front and center, and we hear many more people use this word than was the case before. If we pay close attention to the word's usage, a discerning eye may see that the extolling of the virtues of science is not always as innocent as it might appear. Human beings use language and logic for purposes other than to speak the truth. Language exists in the twilight zone between the nighttime of lies and the daytime of truth, blurring the distinction between those two very different views of reality. And, humans, being humans, can be reasonably expected to exploit the shades in the middle of the truth spectrum to take things where their minds and hearts are inclined to take them. Science can be science, but it can also be a tool of persuasion – of politics.

What is science?

Over the centuries, slowly and steadily, many pioneers have built up the institution of science, which consists of deliberate and thoughtful investigation of our surrounding reality, seeking to understand better, and perhaps to exploit that understanding for human benefit. And there are many who continue to push the enterprise of science forward in this manner to take us to greater things.

The word conjures up people such as Galileo, Hippocrates, Einstein and many others who took it upon themselves to probe deep and often narrow areas of particular interest to them, and who have ended up unraveling deep mysteries of the universe for the rest of us. Many of the scientific findings that arose from these pursuits have resulted in tangible utilities and methods that serve us well. We wouldn't have cars and planes, computers, the Internet, and so many other things but for the work of many of these people, as well as the entrepreneurs, technologists and politicians who followed on their heels and brought these things to us in a tangible day-to-day form.

But that is where science ends, and “science" begins – the point where exploitation by those in the world of commerce and politics becomes the focus. While these popularizers play a role in bringing many of these things to us, their goal is exploitation, not understanding and curiosity for its own sake.

Politicians love “science"

What is “politics"? The Wikipedia defines it as:
“Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status."

Simply put, when people engage with others in different situations, their view of the world and what they see as beneficial or “right" are thrust into the mix to drive decisions and actions that are not completely controlled by any one individual. There is negotiation, persuasion and jockeying for position and power – all very human pursuits. Often, if the negotiations are carried out in the presence of partial, often flawed, information – which is often the case – everyone gets to fill things in with their own fiction, sometimes accidentally and sometimes willfully so that things move to where they would prefer things to move to.

Those who commercialize things are politicians of sorts because their goal is to sell, which often involves persuasion. Persuasion works best when there are vulnerabilities in the subject's mind that can provide “hooks" for messages. These vulnerabilities can also be exploited for commercial gain. Are you less or more likely to buy a product or “solution" when you are not mortally afraid for your well-being? Fear is easy to sell into. There is obviously incentive for those who would benefit from engendering fear in those they sell to. And they do. Just watch the commercials on TV to see this behavior on unambiguous and unhesitant display.

There is a very different kind of selling though that is far more pernicious than what the garden-variety commercialist vends. It is the politician who benefits by clambering into the position of being your well-meaning benefactor, saving you from harm, perhaps even death. And they have the incentive, the means and the motivation to do this. “Science" can be a tool in their hands that helps with this objective. Also, “scientists", being human, don't always practice science. They can serve politicians, and serve their own personal interests too.

Of course, if you practice critical thinking, you can build some immunity to combat this ever-present virus.

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com