Tuesday, January 20, 2015

rant: Ed Abbey on Science and Technology

As NYT columnist David Brooks writes (here), provocateurs are necessary because they say things most of us won't...but perhaps the mark of a reflective person is nuance. I don't read enough, but the books I do pick up I read in hopes of informing my worldview, a grounding from which to practice science, etc. Edward Abbey is an author I come back to again and again, mostly because I find his particular brand of Luddite environmentalism very appealing.  But he lacked nuance in at least one way (and probably many)--his cherrypicked rejection of science.  He did place great importance on our evolved biology and instincts, but he despised quantum physics, because it doesn't jive with everyday experience. He saw the moon missions as frivolous, arrogant. Above all else, ordinary experience is to be trusted and celebrated. Scientific pursuit then, like technology, is dehumanizing.

He rightly, in my view, rails against technology, lacking nuance for sure but bringing up necessary concerns.  His views on science, however,  are wrong-- partly because science and technology have been sold to us as a package. The word "science" conjures images of rockets, electronics, machines. But why? The latest educational fad (and it is a fad) is a renewed focus on "STEM"-- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-- treated as one entity. Why should they be? When the president speaks about creating a generation of scientifically-literate workers, he's talking about science in the technology sector.  Why not science in the service of human understanding? Federal funding for pure science-- biology, physics, chemistry, anthropology (!), not in the service of a direct human need-- is way down.  A bad omen for our intellectual, even spiritual, well-being.

Abbey's disdain for science ("little men in white coats") is ironic: the keen-eyed critic of pop culture, big government, and herd-mentality didn't recognize the distinction between science and technology, the pairing that we've come to believe, one that he should have seen through. Or maybe he interpreted his own mantra-- that immediate human experience is all that's worthwhile-- too literally, and failed to see that revealing truth (capital T?) requires more than the immediate senses.  It's also ironic because, in a time when science must produce something tangible or commercial to be worthwhile, science for science's sake is more important than ever.  It can help preserve (and expand! articulate!) the human meaning that Abbey so vociferously fought for.


  1. "That I think of men like Democritus, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Lyell, Darwin, and Einstein as liberators of the human consciousness, intellectual workers whose insight and intelligence have expanded our awareness of existence infinitely more than all the pronouncements of all the shamans, gurus, seers, and mystics of the earth, East and West, combined. The simple telescope, for instance, has given us visions of a world far greater, lovelier, more awesome and full of wonder than that contained in an entire shipload of magic mushrooms, LSD capsules, and yoga textbooks." Edward Abbey

  2. Thanks Allan-- I'm glad than an Abbey buff was quick to find a counterpoint! That quote is certainly encouraging, though also a bit schizophrenic, in light of quotes like this: "The idolatry of science is the grossest superstition of this gross decade...The more we learn about outer space and inner space, of quasars and quarks, of Big Bangs and Little Blips, the more remote, abstract, and intellectually inconsequential it all becomes." Also, can't find the quote, but to paraphrase: Science's greatest gift has been the atomic bomb (and how can we ever thank them?).

    I love me some Abbey, but I think he couldn't decide which science he felt was acceptable and which was destructive. Again, I'd like to think he levels his criticism just at scientific technology, but at times he scoffs even at the notion of inquiry.