When asked about what science has done for humanity many people would probably mention medical advances. Indeed science has allowed us to create vaccines, antibiotics, drugs, surgical methods, and many other things to treat human disease and improve human health. There are millions of people today upon the face of the earth (including yours truly) who would not be here if it weren’t for these medical advances. But this is not the most important thing that science has done for us.
Other people would allude to the technological advances that science has made possible that have improved our lives. Inventions like refrigerators, air conditioners, cars, planes, phones, computers, and many other things have greatly improved our lives and increased our freedom and abilities. But this is not the most important thing science has done for us.
Even others will mention the way science has opened our eyes to the mystery and beauty of realms previously unseen by us such as when we contemplate images of faraway worlds relayed to us by the probes we have sent into space, or the images of the life of cells and other organisms in the microscopic world. But this is not the most important thing science has done for us.
So what is it?
Let me give you a hint. Recently millions of Americans watched an eclipse of the sun. By all accounts it was a festive event where people expressed amazement at the natural phenomenon. But here is the key thing. No one ran to hide in their basement during the eclipse. No one felt that the eclipse was a “bad omen”. No people were sacrificed to “prevent the moon from swallowing the sun”. The eclipse did not influence domestic or foreign policy. It was just a celestial body (the moon) transiting in front of another (the sun) and casting its shadow on the earth. Amazing? Fantastic? Incredible? Yes. Scary? Foreboding? No.
Figured it out?
This is the gift of science. It has given us information about what things are and what they aren’t; about what can happen and what can’t, and about how things work, and why. This allows us to live better lives free of the shackles of superstition. It allows us to act rationally in response to the changing world about us and optimize our lives. And why is this? Because ignorance in the face of occurrences that may have an impact on our lives generates fear and fear is the begetter of some of the most barbaric behaviors that humanity has ever witnessed.
Ever read about when the black plague decimated most of medieval Europe? The best minds of the period could not get beyond explanations such as an “unfavorable conjunction of planets” or an “infected air”. Among other explanations was a divine punishment for sinfulness. The sheer panic and terror led family members to abandon each other, doctors and priests to desert their posts, and mobs of people to target those who were different such as gypsies or Jews, who were exterminated in many places. After hundreds of years and many outbreaks, it was finally worked out that the plague was caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) which is transmitted by fleas, which in turn are carried by animals like rats. Scary? Yes, but just merely a natural occurrence that is well within our power to control. Today there are still cases of plague, but they can be kept to a minimum through sanitation and easily treated with antibiotics.
When human beings are concerned (or made to be concerned) about threats real or imaginary, they will believe anything and do anything, and this weakness is often successfully exploited by those among the “powers that be” who want to implement their social or corporate agendas, further their standing or careers, or simply profit. Furthermore, because science is so successful at finding the truth, these “powers that be” have understood that a very important part of their plan has to be the delegitimization of science.
Thus the anti-vaccination movement claims that pro-vaccination scientists are controlled by the vaccine industry. The anti-climate change movement claims that climate change scientists are controlled by the liberal science funding agencies. The creationist movement claims that evolution science is part of the war on Christianity. The alternative therapies lobby claims that the medical establishment is preventing citizens from using inexpensive and equally effective treatments. The gun lobby has successfully prevented government funds from being used to study gun violence claiming that it would be part of a slippery slope towards the erosion of key constitutional rights.
The above highlights a sad truth about a gift. A gift is a two part process. The first part occurs when it is given, but the second part involves receiving it. In our complex world where fantasy and folly can de facto become a reality if enough people believe them, science can be successful in transmitting us its gift only to the extent that its discoveries are accepted by individuals and societies.
Eclipse: CCO Creative commons license “Free for commercial use. No attribution required”. The black death by Leo Reynolds, Attribution: NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.