The Sarah Palin Philosophy of Science (or Dumb people in High Places)

Though the years have marched by with apparent indifference, the world is still in recovery, still haunted by the shocking appearance of Alaskan beast far worse than those of Native American

Artist's depiction of Sarah Palin

Artist’s depiction of Sarah Palin

lore, more repulsive than the Sasquatch or Wendigo. This creature did not emerge from the Sea of Japan to crush cities underfoot in retribution. No, this monster came to us in the much less threatening guise of a concerned mother, bible in one hand, and a high-powered rifle in the other; Governor Sarah Palin was thrust into the public eye in 2008 as a hopeful vice president under John McCain, and she has remained attached to the political establishment ever since like a blood-engorged tick.

Her sphere of influence has grown through books, newspaper columns and even a potential second run for the vice presidency. None of which would be very alarming, if it weren’t for the fact what she utters is so frighteningly banal; so ill-considered and ill-informed, that we’re forced to ruminate over the sad fact that worryingly ignorant people occupy very high offices.

There’s nothing new in this, I suppose. People have perennially lamented the limited mental capacities of their leaders, and arguably only Marcus Aurelius approached anything like the idealistic philosopher-king envisioned by Plato. However, one particular ‘Palinism’ has stuck in my mind. In a pre-election interview Palin was asked her thoughts on science funding, to which she responded that she thinks the US government has been lax in its allocation, she expressed concern that scientists were wasting time and tax-payers money; essentially just dicking around for the hell of it. Her example? She cited the existence of scientists in France who are exploring fruit fly genetics, “I mean can you imagine? Fruit flies” she repeated indignantly, implying that she considers this to be as useful as burning piles of cash outright. There would be none of this time-wasting fuckwittery from the scientific community if she were in charge.

Drosophila Melanogaster

Drosophila Melanogaster

Now this ignorance is understandable on the face of it, high school biology was probably a long time ago for the Governor, so how was she to know that the fruit fly is the most widely used, and arguably most useful, model organism in genetics; and through studying it we have learned nearly everything we know about heredity, development and genetic disorders. Its rapid growth and reproduction, abnormally large chromosomes, and low maintenance, make it ideal for an varied array of investigations into genetics, pharmacology, developmental biology etc. etc.

 Flies though. It just sounds so much like scientists are using a much time and energy to investigate pointless questions. You can imagine the rusty cogs of Palin’s brain, and others like hers, grinding in consternation: Didn’t scientists once put an ear on a mouse? They probably make crabs run on treadmills and stick extra legs on badgers just for fun, the useless bastards.

There does seem to be a pernicious public conception of scientists of overly-curious star-gazers, heads in the clouds, examining phenomena that only they find interesting, answering questions no one asked, diverting resources away from more pressing matters. Shouldn’t all biologists be trying to cure cancer all the time? In fact this notion of aimless scientists predates science itself; a play aptly named ‘The Clouds’ written by Aristophanes satirized Socrates by imagining a fictional school of enquiry called ‘The Thinkery’, with Socrates as the head who announces, after tireless work, that he has devised a unit of measurement to determine how far a flea jumps, a comically useless enterprise according to Aristophanes. So Palin certainly isn’t the first to worry that the great ‘thinkers’ of the day have more money, and more curiosity, than sense. But she is, quite frankly, wrong.

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream - Van Gogh

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream – Van Gogh

This conception of scientists as overly-curious time wasters, divorced from the real world and absorbed in their pointless and endless puzzles, is not only naïve, but even if it were accurate, it would still be a worthwhile pursuit and worth every penny that is put into it. Here’s why:

Firstly, as with the fruit fly genetics example, what looks on the surface to be an esoteric and useless avenue of enquiry is in fact a very ingenious and more efficient way to study a very important problem. As noted above, fruit flies have made it easy to study heredity in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in other organisms, and helped us to unravel the mysteries of gene networks that govern development. The scientists aren’t interested in the fly’s development per se, although after years working with them I’m sure they develop a certain fondness for the bastards, but more for what they reveal of the common principles and important genes with homologues in humans, for instance, they can infer laws and principles with speed and manipulate the flies in ways that it would be unethical to do so in higher organisms. This holds true for most any other case you can name where it appears that scientists lost themselves in some pointless endeavour, usually the overly-specific and seemingly useless problem they are addressing is part of some greater whole, or indirect method of getting an important conundrum, whose solution will be of great benefit to mankind.

The other reason this view of scientists as time-wasters is flawed is that even if they are just star-gazing, listless students of the ‘Thinkery’ as Aristophanes would have it, the massive element of serendipity and luck that exists in science still means useful discoveries would be made all the time. 19th century physicists analysing the light spectrum of the sun noticed small gaps in the spectra, explained only by the existence of a new element, called ‘helium’ (from helios:  sun). The gaps in the spectra of light absorbed by different atoms also helped pave the way for the understanding of atomic structure, and thus eventually the quantum revolution itself. Now arguably the entire quantum revolution is arguably just as esoteric and irrelevant itself to the general public, most of us live our lives entirely and blissfully unaware of the mathematical descriptions of electrons and their behaviour. Only, as Brian Cox points out, silicon transistors which comprise a broad swathe of our modern technology are a purely quantum phenomenon, only possible to be built only once we understood this esoteric and pointless world of the electron.

Circuit board with silicon chips - product of the quantum revolution

Circuit board with silicon chips – product of the quantum revolution

Literally by staring into the sky and wondering about the nature of sunlight, and peering down into the energy absorbed by atoms, perhaps the two most extreme examples of arcane and abstruse behaviour, there occurred the discovery of a new element, and a quantum revolution, without which a great deal of our modern luxuries wouldn’t exist.

Back to Governor Palin. Yes there are geneticists in France, and most developed nations actually, working all day, every day on fruit flies. They have taught us a great deal, and continue to do so. Yes there are physicists who spend night after night in observatories, staring into the deep expanse of space, and others who delve into the impossibly small world of the atoms, and both of these groups have completely changed the edifice of technology and innovation in the past, and will do again in the future no doubt. However seemingly random and esoteric a scientific problem may appear, it just isn’t a good barometer of how beneficial the results might be. A revolution is always around the corner and they come from the funniest places. As it happens Socrates’ name has far out shined that of Aristophanes, and although ‘The Clouds’ was supposed to satirize the perils of thinking too deeply, historically it is in fact always been those with their heads in the clouds who made the greatest and most impacting discoveries. Now if only those in charge of allocating science funding were aware of this then people like Palin would concern me a lot less.

Palin in comparison

Palin in comparison

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Science and faith: a re-consideration

science-religion  For millennia people have understood the world through the lens of faith, the firm belief in teachings handed down by a select few anointed individuals, or prophets, with a special connection to God. Biblically, there appears to only be a few people in each millennium considered worthy enough to be God’s mouthpiece; today many Catholics believe the Pope fulfils a comparable role, and other religions have similar characters who are able to delineate truths revealed from on high. On the surface, the sphere of science seems a million miles from the domain of faith, perhaps almost its opposite; after all science operates on principles of falsification and scepticism, not trust. However, from the position of a lay-audience science and religion have much more in common than you might expect.

Someone unfamiliar with the scientific theory on a given subject is expected to accept scientific truths on the authority of a few esteemed scientists whom, as far as they are concerned, are individuals with special insight. This is much the same way in which people revered the prophets of old. An obvious objection to this comparison would be that, according to the principles of the scientific method, people who doubt a scientific principle or observation are invited to disprove it, therefore the longer a certain idea lasts the more we can be confident in its truth value; whereas in religion such open enquiry has historically been discouraged, thus faith belongs in religion and should have no place in scientific discourse. I agree with this basic distinction and of course in essence science and religion are completely different entities, but to an uninitiated individual the overall experience is much the same. Can we reasonably expect a lay person to have the necessary resources, or even the requisite understanding of theory and experimental protocol to go about falsifying or systematically disproving modern scientific theories? How would any of us go about deciding whether the Hadron-collider data that glimpsed the Higgs Boson is accurate or not? We are simply expected to believe the scientists involved in such projects have the ability to know these things and trust that they do. Obviously this ability isn’t divine, but that is irrelevant to those of us who aren’t educated particle physicists, because it is unlikely we will ever have the requisite understanding to check, and know, for ourselves that what they say is true. Therefore we must accept what they say on authority, not on evidence. This is a species of faith.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan formulated the idea of ‘Le sujet supposé savoir’, or the ‘subject who is supposed to know’.  In BYU3vmSjeMdIB3wVgZVb3Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Psychoanalysis this represents the faith the person being analysed places in the knowledge of the analyst, which Lacan considered more important than the knowledge itself. The psychoanalyst is the one ‘who is supposed to know’, and therefore the patient puts far more stock in what they say because of this supposition. Scientists fulfil this role for society, we think they are the ones who are ‘supposed to know’, and therefore we collectively heed their advice, when once we invested in the advice of prophets.  Now it is scientists, not prophets, who commune with governments, inform policy, and receive extensive tax-payer subsidy; they are the Levites of a new age.

For the scientific illiterate, Science’s usurpation of Religion is like the invasion of a foreign king as seen by a peasant, it’s a purely nominal change and life continues much the same. The king himself may be the complete opposite of his predecessor in nature, but the peasant will never be close enough to either king to understand this difference, what is asked of him does not change. Science requires no less faith and fealty than religion, it may operate on completely dissimilar principles, but to the lay audience (incidentally: ‘lay’ is originally a religious word meaning ‘non-ordained’ finding new meaning in scientific society) they are equally beyond the horizon of their understanding. Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, in this case the quote should read ‘For most, any sufficiently advanced method of discerning truth is indistinguishable from special revelation’ (Although that’s much less poetic).

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Facing the Absurd: Albert Camus and the Joker.

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There is a gaping expanse that separates our desire for life to have meaning, and the chaotic unfairness we actually experience. French philosopher Albert Camus called this feeling ‘The Absurd’; bad things happen for no reason, we work repetitive and probably meaningless jobs, and eventually die, and we spend a lot of that life suspecting that there is supposed to be some master plan or purpose. Camus encapsulates in his concept of the absurd the awareness that these expectations are simply unfounded, which he outlined eloquently in his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.

However, he is not the only person to promote such a notion. Another man expresses startlingly similar sentiments, he is a fictional person, and he is to be found in the annals of the DC comic book universe. Recently played to perfection by the late Heath Ledger, The Joker espouses a philosophy that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Camus’s ‘The Absurd’. “It’s all a joke” the Joker reminds us in almost every film and comic appearance, maintaining that life is inherently ludicrous. It seems Camus and The Joker are in agreement about our sorry state of existence, yet they diverge wildly when it comes to how to react in light of this.

Camus wrote “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”, if life is pointless, why should you go on living it? Because, he writes, that’s just avoiding the problem, it’s taking the easy tumblr_men7f5Tvnp1rs7i8ao1_500way out. Nor should you try to dismiss or rationalize the apparent absence of meaning in your life. Many people do this and make grand claims about the meaning of life; religious and spiritual teachers all claim to know some higher truth that will cause all the little pieces fall into place, but Camus says these people are just wasting their time, it’s the blind leading the blind. Camus calls this act ‘philosophical suicide’; it’s just another easy way out. The Joker agrees with sentiment this, as he quips:  “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.”

So what does Camus, and his fictional grim counterpart, prescribe for those trying to engage with a truly Absurdist life? What should we do if we are not to end it or deny it? This is where the two make a wild departure from eachother.

Camus says we must be like the Greek hero Sisyphus downloadwho was condemned by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain every day, only to watch it roll back down each night. The minutiae of our lives are just like Sisyphus’ futile task, repetitive and completely fruitless, but Camus says we have to imagine that Sisyphus is happy, walking down the mountain with a wry smile on his face; Sisyphus eventually recognises that all anyone is doing is rolling boulders up hills and watching them roll back down. The joke is on the Gods, they thought they were punishing him, but when they told he’d be doing a meaningless task forever, they freed him from the illusion that life was supposed to be meaningful, he became awake to absurd, and this allowed him to be truly content. He’s no longer struggling to find that ever-elusive fulfilment and meaning, he knows its basically bullshit, so now he can simply be.

The Joker, like Sisyphus, recognises the absurd, but he goes a step too far. He decides it’s not enough to go on pushing your boulder up your hill, smiling to yourself wryly that this all anyone can do. He makes it his life work to make everyone else see it too. “I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” If the world is inherently chaotic and random, then not only does that render all attempts to impose a meaning on it pointless (as Camus says), in fact they are positively ridiculous. A bad joke, as the Joker puts it.

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The blockbuster movie ‘Dark Knight’ depicts the joker enacting a veritable crusade against purpose; he blows up hospitals, assassinates a mayor, and even robs banks only to burn the money. He is essentially a terrorist without an agenda. “I’ll show you.” He says “When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

The Joker is, obviously, fictional, but I don’t think that should give us license to reject his associated philosophy out of hand, why should we prize Camus’s advice over the Jokers? I can think of a few misguided individuals who chose the latter. In 2012 James Holmes walked in to a Colorado movie theatre armed with several automatic weapons, he opened fire indiscriminately on the defenceless audience. 12 people died, and Holmes was arrested. His apartment had been laced with explosives and he had been planning the attack for a considerable amount of time. His obsession with the Joker character, specifically the Heath Ledger incarnation, was obvious. Here is a man who is clearly mentally deranged; I don’t mean to imply that he made a rational choice to engage in a philosophical act when he murdered all those people, but it is also clear that from his diaries and subsequent james-holmes-trialinterviews that he definitely recognized the inherent absurdity of life and was also clearly a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. Holmes decided against embracing meaningless as Camus would want, but instead he chose to actively inflict it on others, becoming what the joker calls ‘an agent of chaos’. A living reminder of Joker’s warning: “You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!”

For no real reason, we are here. We must realise this if we are to be intellectually honest, and not try to shy away from it by convincing ourselves otherwise, or stepping down from the challenge and taking our own lives. Ultimately the Joker’s philosophy is self defeating, ironically so, his scheme to show everyone how pointless and purposeless everything is, is in fact just another pointless scheme on the pile. His quest has become for him a sort of meta-purpose, he essentially rejects the absurd and superimposes a purpose onto a chaotic existence, and this puts him squarely within the ‘philosophical suicide’ category that Camus outlines in the essay, he is simply not facing up to the true reality of existence by embracing the absurd. Unlike Sisyphus, the Joker does not recognise the pointlessness of his struggle, therefore he is not truly living.

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