Separating science from history and culture

To wrap up 30 days of one post per day, let me step away from creationism for a moment and highlight this fantastic essay by Ben Lille:

I’m a physicist turned writer who specializes in finding stories of how science has affected people’s lives. I’m disturbed that [the conflict over the location of the Maui telescope] came as a surprise, and disturbed about what that says about the culture of science. I’m disturbed by how scientists see ourselves as separate from culture and history, unaffected by it, and not responsible for its ills, and I wonder what we can do about that.

Our news is dominated by misery: wars and injustice and the daily grind of our banal horribleness to each other. We see invasions and racism and misogyny, drought and starvation and refugees. To many of us, science offers a respite from this, a place of curiosity and wonder. There is incredible solace in knowing that the objects of our study—the light from galaxies, the quarks and gluons bound into protons, even the chemical bonds in the strands of our DNA—are oblivious to these things. It’s one of the great joys I took as a particle physicist, knowing that what we studied was universal, true for all things and all people.

Because of that, though, there is an incredible temptation to believe that because these things are universal, by studying them we transcend the issues of people, that we ourselves become universal, not subject to or responsible for the troubles that surround us. But just as the laws of physics are the same on Earth and in the skies, just as the stuff of matter is the same in the interstellar dust and in our bodies, so the tides of history and the nature of people are the same in the sciences and the rest of our society.

And so transcendence can take the form of blindness to differences between people and to our own biases. We assume scientists all think and believe the same things, even beyond the unequivocal data. We are all equal as scientists if we all value the same principles. And what we value comes almost entirely from Enlightenment-era Europe. This is a troubling state of affairs if we claim to strive for all humanity.

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