Science Is A 4-Year Old Playing With The World

It needs adults to set limits.

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John von Neumann (1903-1957) was one of history’s greatest mathematicians.  His equations helped create both computers and the atomic bomb. He is known as the prime developer of game theory, giving scientists new tools to model social, political, and economic decisions. He published over 150 papers in physics, math, and other areas.

Von Neumann also spent years working to get the USA to launch a ‘preventive war’ against the Soviet Union, to destroy it with nuclear bombs. Based on his study of games like Prisoners’ Dilemma, which models how non-cooperating people make choices, Von Neumann concluded that if two enemy countries both had nuclear weapons, self-interest would drive each of them to use those weapons first. He thought the only scientific, rational thing to do would be to take out the USSR before they had nukes of their own.

This is the kind of thing science comes up with if not restrained by non-scientific thinking or by faith.  Von Neumann described himself as “fiercely anti-Communist,” but didn’t seem to consider how that belief system might affect his thinking. He thought he was advising what was objectively best for the USA. But if nuclear winter theory – which didn’t exist at the time — is correct, the smoke, dust, and radioactivity set off by Von Neumann’s preventive war would have killed all large life-forms on Earth.

Fortunately, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower refused to launch the preventive war. A few years later, both the US and USSR had developed ‘second strike capability,’ meaning that even if their enemy destroyed their country, they would still have enough remaining nuclear firepower to destroy the aggressor.  This is the strategy called “Mutually Assured Destruction,” and it has prevented all-out war between nuclear powers ever since. Politicians, and not particularly brilliant ones at that, had saved the world from science.

Science does worst when it does well

It’s hard to deny that science, technology, and capitalism have dramatically raised humans’ living standards. Human population has gone up from about 0.6 billion in the year 1600 (when science started) to over 7 billion today. People are living longer; they’re traveling, expressing themselves in amazingly creative ways.  Rulers still start wars and impoverish billions of people, but decade by decade, violent deaths decrease and the numbers not living in poverty increase.

But for the natural world, of which we are a part, the cost of those advances has been enormous, incalculable. Continents have burned; at least half of the Great Barrier Reef has died, according to Australian researchers. Numbers of birds, insects, and other wildlife are down by at least a third, and about 1000 species become extinct each year, according to  The world is getting hotter and hotter, and there is no known way out of that lethal temperature rise.

                               Air pollution EU’s #1 health hazard   Image:

Capitalism’s need for growth and profit may be the force driving the world over a cliff, but science designed the train. As one of 10,000 examples, 19th Century British scientists discovered how to get gold from dirt by pouring poisonous cyanide solution over it. Using this ‘cyanide heap leaching’ method, mining corporations pile up mountains of dirt, derive a tiny amount of gold from it, and leave behind a poisoned landscape and polluted rivers. The people who live there suffer or move away, and the corporation pays a nice dividend to shareholders.

Absent the power of racial capitalism to run the world, this process would not be happening so widely. But it wouldn’t exist at all if chemists and geologists hadn’t invented it.

Making science work for all of us

When indigenous cultures ran the world, mining in general was extremely limited. Not because they scientifically calculated the environmental costs of mining, but because they worshipped the Earth and thought mining an assault on their Mother.  They thought the veins of metals that explorers sought to dig up were the literal veins of Earth, and without them, Nature was crippled and unable to provide as it had before.

But those beliefs weren’t scientific. They were pagan religion which capitalist believers in science thought meaningless.  And, though they were right about the effects of mining, the people who held those beliefs had no power against the capitalists’ guns.  So, the veins got dug out and the land poisoned. Now they’ve gone beyond the veins to mine the whole Earth.  Von Neumann would have been pleased.

My point isn’t to get rid of science or subordinate it to religion. But science is only beneficial when wise people look at the bigger picture beyond knowledge for its own sake, beyond profit or the solution to an immediate problem. The internal combustion engine, which powers most cars and buses, was a brilliant idea, but anyone could see it dirtied the air. So, wiser people might have asked, ‘What will 1,300,000,000 (the current number of cars driving in the world) of these things do to the plants, the animals, our health? Maybe we shouldn’t do this.’

But capitalism doesn’t ask those questions. Corporations see potential profits and they go for them, and anyone in the way is likely to be pushed out or destroyed. When the environmental bills come due, society and Nature, not the capitalists, have to pay them.

So, if scientists, capitalists, and corrupt politicians won’t ask of science, ‘Is this something we should be doing’, who will ask? We’ll need science to have a chance of surviving as a species on a living planet, but what kind of science?

We need people of wisdom to outrank the smart people. Scientists need adults in the room to set limits on their boundless desire for knowledge. We need philosophers and faith leaders, especially indigenous leaders, to make decisions about what to do with scientific advances, technological development and capitalist expansion.

At a time when indigenous people can’t even control what is done to their own land by capitalist science, it’s hard to imagine their having control over science and technology in general. But maybe other non-scientists such as religious leaders could join them. Maybe scientists themselves could come to endorse caution. That’s the kind of revolution we need if humanity and Earth are to survive. Science, yes, but in the service of wisdom.

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3 Responses to Science Is A 4-Year Old Playing With The World

  1. Tammy Pilisuk says:

    I think what we need more of may be ethicists, not religious leaders. Religion can cripple science as in trying to ban abortion or subvert stem cell research. Ethicists will weigh the value and dangers of any research, as well as potential harms, leaving out religious dogma. Finally, It would be awesome to do this in a world where the scientific research did not have a profit motive that could cause it to be to be sold to capitalists without ethical oversight. That sounds rather utopian, but I’m open to how that would work.

  2. Roger Eaton says:

    Another great article! It is a question of morality. But there had better be a bottom-up component as well as top down influence from ethicists. No easy answer.

  3. Mathias says:

    I know I’m reading an article almost two years later, but I’m glad to see some people paying more attention to wise advisors (many of them indigenous/traditional practitioners) regarding applying scientific methods to traditional practices and ethics (or vice verso) to develop an approach focused on health and based in gratitude

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