From February 14 to February 19, Boston was the science capital of the United States, hosting the Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Thousands of scientists from the U.S., and not a few from abroad, converged to present papers, conduct job interviews, network with friends, and carry on all the activities typical of such professional gatherings.
But of course the annual meeting of the AAAS is not just another conference. Science is the dominant discourse of our culture, and its products—technology high and low—define this historical moment and arouse both great hopes and great fears for the century to come. The range of subjects covered is staggering. On the morning of Friday the 15th between 9:00 a.m. and noon, you could choose among sessions on avian cognition ("When Being Called 'Bird Brain' Is a Compliment"), predicting extreme weather, accuracy in media reporting of scientific issues, the archaeology of modern human origins, the farm crisis, the new computing, the future of personal use vehicles in China, and half a dozen more, including the excellent session I attended, "The Prefrontal Cortex and Cognition: New Insights into Willful Behavior."
From this immense variety you get a sense of the extraordinary enterprise that is modern science: an enormous collective effort, always building on the work of predecessors, crossing barriers of language and culture. Not content with ever greater understanding and control of the physical world, its reach extends far into the human social world as well.
Indeed, in his keynote address, Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and president of the AAAS, presented science as nothing less than the solution to the world's most vexing problems. The theme of this year's meeting,"Science in a Connected World," was given new urgency by the events of September 11. While scientists must work immediately to help to combat terrorism, Raven said, their long-term goal must be to eliminate the inequities that (in his view) gave rise to terrorism in the first place. What he called for was nothing less than a utopian dream of complete global equality—in health and material comforts, in educational opportunities, in democratic representation, and in every other way.
This agenda was interwoven with the other key theme of his address: the ongoing degradation of the environment, the loss of biodiversity, the galloping consumption of resources by the developed nations (and by Americans in particular)—all of that, said once, said twice, and said again, in case you had dozed off at some point.
Hunter-gatherer modes, evolved to cope with demands that were pressing millennia ago, still dominate our thinking even though they are no longer functional, Raven said. Our urgent need is to develop new ways of thinking. After all, humans are but one of perhaps 10 million species, yet we persist in regarding ourselves as special, consuming resources out of all proportion to our place in the grand scheme of things.
In his exposition of this theme, Raven grew apoplectic, especially when referring to the controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which argues that many of the concerns of environmentalists are overstated or supported by dubious evidence. Raven's sputtering fury at the very thought of such heresy seemed a poor model for scientific engagement, especially given the fact that the author of this contrarian book, Bjorn Lonborg, is by no means indifferent to many of Raven's concerns.
Even more troubling, though, was the quasi-religious mission Raven envisioned for science. This was a staple of Establishment Science not so long ago—certainly in the 1950s and 1960s—but more recently it has not been so widely shared. Science hasn't lost any of its ambitions, contrary to some reports from the postmodern camp, but the claims of the prophets of biotech, say, tend to be couched in far more pragmatic terms, sometimes with a swagger, and when a scientist like Lee Silver titles a book Remaking Eden, he's indulging in irony.
By contrast, Raven quoted Gandhi (more than once), sounding remarkably like an early enthusiast for the United Nations. It turns out that we can all get along together if only we follow Science's lead. This entails the "development of a strongly based science culture throughout the world," all the while maintaining "sensitivity to local cultures" and of course promoting the empowerment of women. Honesty, generosity, openness and respect for the views of others, and a commitment to seek the truth: these will be the hallmarks of the Brave New World, for "science has humanized our values."
Many of the men and women who came to AAAS would make no such claims, I suspect: they have a more realistic grasp of the limits of science as well as its capabilities. And to generalize about such a diverse bunch would be incautious. While waiting for the keynote lecture to begin, I overheard a conversation in the row behind me between a woman who is promoting better science education at the secondary level and a man who turned out to be a proponent on the Intelligent Design movement. In urban high schools, the woman said, teachers of physics (for instance) rarely have had any training in the subject they teach. Her goals are modest, though still not easily achievable, and they are well worth striving for.
That's the face of Science, too, sometimes lost sight of. Like every human creation, it is a mixture of good and evil, insight and foolishness. But never before, perhaps, have the stakes been so high, the potential both for misuse and for good so huge.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)