In an earlier post I described the making of a pinhole photo as “nature and science in cahoots. . . ” I like that description. I don’t get to use “cahoots” as often as I want because it draws a lot of attention to itself. Yet, the description is problematic. Are science and nature separate entities?
Looky here: I’ll be a typically lazy blogger and go grab a definition from Wikipedia:
Science is a systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.
Science is just the parts nature that we’ve got a handle on. Science is our arrogance of perceived mastery. The distinction is all about our point of view from way, way up on the superior creature pyramid. See, to a dumb creature like a possum, an oak tree is nature. But to a botanist or chemist or microbiologist or ornithologist or entomologist it’s science.
Eh. The oak tree is what it is despite our testable laws and theories (i.e. makes awesome kitchen cabinets!).
I never thought about this until I spent a few fabulous days at an NEH-sponsored retreat for science museum professionals, back when I worked at a science museum. At St. John’s College in Santa Fe, 20 of us from around the country attended seminars taught in the very intimidating round-table style of St. John’s, discussing “science” texts (more like philosophy) by Aristotle and Francis Bacon, which I could barely understand (so much for my fancy liberal arts education).
The professor for our biology labs was a woman from the nearby Tewa Indian reservation. She tore apart the idea of science. She said that the Tewa people didn’t have a word for science. Since I got this information straight from her, I believed it (unlike the myth of Eskimos having a zillion words for snow). She pointed out that the Indian people also gather knowledge about the world, often in a systematic way, but that the non-Indian culture does not consider this effort science. We consider it folk wisdom. Also, possessing what we consider scientific knowledge does not alter the core attributes of whatever we study. The oak tree is the oak tree regardless of how well we understand its nature.
So what, you say. Science is the study of nature. What’s the problem?
The problem is that science is often promoted and perceived as superior to nature. That our understanding and control over the world is an achievement greater than the actual world. We’re just a flock of dumb ducks paddling about, poking our heads under the surface to see what’s what.
I realize I don’t have good handle on this argument, so feel free to jump in. Partly I think I’m too dumb to think this through properly, and partly I’m not good taking sides. I’m not about black & white. I’m all about shades of gray and on the other hand. It’s difficult for me to be absolute. Also, I happen to love reading about science. I love looking through microscopes. I am in awe scientists and scientific discoveries . . . so there you go. I am not completely talking out my ass, but from that general vicinity. On the other hand . . . this is me exploring an idea, which is a valid pursuit, yes?