Science has proven its tremendous value over and over again. Science should not be discarded because it reveals truths that are unpleasant to the powerful.
By the end of his career, G. H. Harding (1877-1947), renowned English mathematician, was lamenting the fading of his own creative talents due to age, the state of the world as it existed at the brink of World War II, and the fact that Number Theory, his field of concentration, had no known practical application at the time. In his 1940 essay “A Mathematician’s Apology”, he justified his life’s work by describing himself as an artist. Like a great poem, novel, painting, or musical composition, pure mathematics derives its value from the aesthetic pleasure of revelation. It opens a window of insight into a pure reality. In a world embarking on a horrendous war, Harding further justified his life’s pursuit of pure mathematics by pointing out that, even if useless, its very “uselessness” on the whole meant that it could not be misused to cause harm. Ironically, the war that concerned him was won (just prior to his death) in no small part by the ability of the Allied Forces to break the Axis’ codes while keeping their own codes relatively secret.
For thousands of years, people have searched for ways to send messages secretly. Today’s encryption methods are based on Number Theory. We rely daily on our ability to send private messages to online vendors, our banks, and others. We can, to a great extent, rely on those messages remaining private so long as we protect the secrecy of our passwords. Today’s successful encryption, which allows for our current Internet Commerce, is made possible by Number Theory and relies heavily on the work of G. H. Harding. Though he didn’t live to see it, his work turned out to have profound, positive, practical application for our daily lives.
Many superficial people don’t like scientists because scientists doubt, as did Harding at the end of his career. But, doubting and questioning are the beginning of true knowledge.
There are countless times in our history when mathematics proved something possible that had not yet been observed, only to have it tested observationally and proven, in that manner also, to be true. Often, the evidentary proof comes decades or centuries after the mathematical proof. Math is the language of science and engineering. It is also a tool of insight and prediction. Math and Science have elevated our species to the top of the food chain and made our lives longer and more comfortable than could have been imagined a few centuries earlier.
Yet, somehow, there is now a school of thought — one lauded by our current “President” in the U.S. — that pure math and pure science have little importance. They involve doubt and questioning. They cost too much. They take too much money out of the billionaires’ pockets at tax time. This school of thought has a short-sighted world view. It places more importance on false certainty and on the power of certain economically successful families and organizations than it does on the advancement of knowledge. It ignores the tremendous value of math and science, proven over and over again in our history.
Our government’s current budgeting priorities are based on this erroneous school of thought. Science does not provide a fast enough return on investment to suit those with greedy financial aspirations. Our government is choosing to be the grasshopper rather than the ant in the Aesop fable. Science, as in the case of global warming, reveals costs that the powerful don’t want deducted from their ledgers. Our government’s budgeting priorities are based on immediate gratification rather than long term stability and advancement. This is unacceptable.
Science will sustain us as a species. Science can get us through a climate catastrophe. Science will continue to advance the quality of our existence — but only if we allow it to do so, only if we give it the priority it deserves.
Those of us who disagree with the current budgeting priorities (as well as with the current denigration of science in general) will be marching Saturday, April 22, 2017. We will take to the streets to point out the wrongness of the current political thinking. A world without science would be a dark and dangerous world. We will not go quietly back to the Middle Ages. We will rage, but rage peacefully, against that darkness. Please join us if you will, either in D.C. or at a satellite march near your home.