David Michael Burrow

Optimism and Pessimism


Public optimism and pessimism toward science seems to generally reflect the overall public mood. That we even question reasons for optimism and pessimism toward science seems to reflect a change in our society from ten or twenty years ago. In times (such as the 1950s and '60s) when science is progressing in a way the public at large sees as beneficial, there is really no question but what science is good and that it is ever improving. (It is notable, however, that economic times were also good in the 1950s and '60s.) Today we see a quite different mood, one of more alienation and fear of technology. As jobs are lost to mechanization, we see more and more people seeing science as an evil force in the world and hoping to stop it in its tracks.

This cycle has repeated itself many times throughout history. Generally the scientific revolutions are first seen in a positive light. When the new method takes prominence in specific areas, however, a negative reaction is felt. With the negative reaction comes a time for analysis and evaluation of science and its place in the world. By the time the evaluation is complete, the new method has become generally accepted, and both science and the world go on.

We are very much in a time of evaluation now, as the computer age becomes established as a part of virtually every person's life. Perhaps taking a long look at the reasons for optimism and pessimism about science will do two things: help us to see the benefits the new age will bring and keep us in control of the age, rather than having the age control us. It is from this perspective that I investigate the good and the bad of science.

It is hard not to be optimistic looking over the history of science. From the most primitive of beginnings, science has developed into a modern marvel.

It is generally true that people's physical quality of life has improved after each scientific revolution. Even UNICEF would have to agree that the poorest of earth's people today lead (or at least have the opportunity of leading) physically better lives than did any of their ancestors. We hear rich old men in our country wishing they could return to the "good old days." One might wonder which days they want to return to: the days before their station wagons were built, the days before the telephone allowed them to talk with far-away friends and relatives, or the days before medicine could keep them healthy into their seventies? We so often take for granted inventions that were virtually unknown to our grandparents and even our parents. Surely we must hope that future generations will say the same about inventions we have no concept of.

Besides the myriad inventions science has given us, there is ever reason to believe that science itself is indeed evolving and getting better. Certainly we can observe the science of primitive societies and compare it with our modern knowledge--that there is an improvement is quite obvious. The trend of development between the two, though, shows a very regular evolution. We take, for example, the development of the theories of motion in physics, from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein. Each phase of the development has yielded a more general, more universal concept. The same holds in mathematics, which had to adapt the "absolute" Euclidean geometry to simply a special case of a more general logical theory. Developments in almost every other science are much the same--trying to improve and to generalize what is already established. Surely we can assume science will continue the trend it has followed for millenia.

Much as we see optimism in the history of science, however, we must also observe the problems that science has caused. They are, at least in the minds of many, just as numerous as science's accomplishments, and as science continues to grow it will certainly bring still more problems.

It is intriguing that while the natural sciences seek to understand nature, the technological applications of science so often seem to destroy it. Los Angeles recently suffered the worst air pollution since the "killer smog" that plagued London in the 1950s, irrigation in the western states threatens to upset the ecological balance throughout the Rockies, and our quest for cheap energy has given us the technology to literally destroy all human life. We know that fossil fuels are finite, and yet our search for energy to fuel the development of technology continues--often destroying whole ecosystems in its path. Some have argued that, in our polluted and decaying world, the atomic bomb might be an advantage--a relatively painless means of mass suicide.

Technology may well have brought improvements in the quality of life, but it has also created a great imbalance in that quality from place to place. Iowans may well appreciate automobiles, telephones, and modern medicine, but it would be difficult to find people in rural Laos who were familiar with any of these, except possibly some medical developments. Frequently Third World labor constructs the modern devices Americans and Europeans use, but few Third World people have the money to use them themselves. The gap between rich and poor becomes most evident when we note that the per-capita income in Anchorage is over $15,000, while in the Central African Empire it is under $100.

Another negative aspect of scientific development we must note is the alienation new technology brings to people. We see this throughout the history of science. The idea of the helio-centric universe robbed the human race of its position at the center of all things. With the industrial revolution, many people felt alienated by large factory machines--often expressing their anger through physical damage to the machines. Today we see this alienation again with the computer revolution. Many people honestly believe that computers are smarter than they are and express a genuine fear of the new technology. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, this is a key reason we are (as a society) evaluating science at this time.

Finally, when we study the history of science, we often laugh at the beliefs held by earlier "scientists." We see some of these views as totally "off-the-wall," and we wonder how people ever thought of "something so wrong." One can only wonder if future students will think the same of our present scientific views. If in fact our science is as "wrong" as that of the Greeks, we can justifiably think it must be futile to study science at all.


Clearly there are reasons, both sound and weak arguments, for feeling both optimistic and pessimistic about science and its future. I believe we must see all science, especially the current computer technology, for what it is--not some god to rule our lives, but rather a tool to help us understand the world. This makes science as a whole, and the new technology in particular, far less foreign and alienating.

I am frankly optimistic about science. Many of my views were brought to the surface with my mother's illness and death from cancer this year. Many cancers are now curable; my mother's could not yet be cured. Her doctors, however, tried virtually hundreds of different treatments for the disease. I asked her once how she felt about this, and this was her response:

Frankly, there is no hope for me. I know I'm going to die; the only real question is when. What the doctors are doing will really not benefit me in the least. I know, though, that what they learn from me will help someone else later on.
My grandmother died of cancer in 1968. She suffered greatly and died within weeks of the diagnosis. Most cancer patients today (including my mother) have much less suffering and live far longer than earlier patients. Certainly there has been an improvement in the last fourteen years, and I must share my mother's views--what happens today, good and bad, will help make the future better.

David Burrow
December, 1982


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This essay was written as part of David Burrow's final exam in the course "Philosphy of Science".

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