We need new knowledge like we need a hole in the head.” Robert Oppenheimer
“…though the bulk of scientific knowledge clearly increases with time, what are we to say about ignorance? The problems solved during the last thirty years did not exist as open questions a century ago. In any age, the scientific knowledge already at hand virtually exhausts what there is to know, leaving visible problems at the horizon of existing knowledge. Is it not possible, or perhaps even likely, that contemporary scientists know less of what there is to know about their world than the scientists of the eighteenth century knew of theirs? Scientific theories, it must be remembered, attach to nature only here and there. Are the interstices between those points of attachment perhaps now larger and more numerous than ever before?”
For millions of years we existed as a species of generalists, collectively knowing nothing about the constituents of matter and life, but almost everything we needed to know individually to adapt to a natural environment. Now that we are becoming a species of specialists, providing all the rest of us with everything there is to know about everything, about genes for instance, where our abilities to gather food in a natural environment were ingrained, we are presently raising a generation of children who thinks they know everything, but who don’t even know where their food comes from, beyond the supermarket where they have bought it.
We don’t compete anymore to contribute to the survival of the group to which we belong, as we needed to do for millions of years as communal individuals, but to intentionally attain the highest possible standard of living as private individuals, and this while using wasteful collective means (e.g., industrial agriculture and ranching). Hence, contributing to the destruction of a social and natural environments to which we used to adapt using natural and rudimentary means.
Of course, we were then dying at thirty or forty years of age, but we collectively did it for millions of years. Now that medicines, antibiotics, and plastic bags allow Westerners to expect living healthy and satisfied for almost ninety years of age, it is the whole earth that we are killing with our waste products. Today’s specialized sciences with their thousand-page report contributing to the destruction of forests has become as relevant to our survival in a dwindling environment, as the racks of the male Irish elks have been for theirs during the Ice Age.
In fact, though, specialization is not the real problem. Indeed, I predict that if we change our ways, and do what I did with my life, for instance, future generations won’t have problems with the extinction of species in the natural environment, but with the malfunctioning of their societies because of the missing specialists to maintain them. It is not specialization per se that is the problem, but an economic system that cannot adapt to the proliferation of knowledge that specialists have accumulated with their well-intentioned hard work.
(The roads that the global economy is presently paving with these “good intentions” is the can of worms that the present “learned ignorant” is opening in Part III of this essay.)
If Oppenheimer would still be alive today, he would surely say, instead of “we need new knowledge like we need a hole in the head,” that we need to use the knowledge that we have accumulated in the last sixty years, to solve the problem that we have created while accumulating it. However, since is not here anymore, I will say it in his stead.
He would surely soon realize, tough, that this is easier said than done, since the problem is global and:
“… we can no longer take the word of the scientists on the job. Their evaluation of the importance of their own research must also be unreliable, for they must support their own needs; even in the most ideal situation they can look only at the neighboring parts of the research front, for it is not their own business to see the whole picture. …
“The trouble seems to be that it is no man’s business to understand the general patterns …
“I do not know, indeed, whether one might in fact understand the crises of modern science so well as to have the power to do anything about them. I must, however, suggest that the petty illnesses of science-its super-abundance of literature, its manpower shortages, its increasing specialization, its tendency to deteriorate in quality-all these things are but symptoms of a general disease. That disease is partly understood by the historian, and might be understood better if it were any man’s professional province to do so. [*] Even if we could not control the crisis that is almost upon us, there would at least be some satisfaction in understanding what was hitting us.” (P. 144-45) [My emphases]Derek J. de Solla Price, (1964) Diseases of Science, in The Rise of Science in Relation to Society. Ed., Leonard M. Marsak, The Macmillan company, New York. (P. 144-45)
* I have made it my business to understand the desease of humanity from a comprehensive point of view . . .”WIP”
. . . Coming soon