“The Big Bang,” Science, and Ethics

I have blogged before about our need to make distinctions to be clear about what we say and there is a key distinction that we frequently fail to make. That’s where I am going now with the help of a popular sit-com.

Science is not technology. Sheldon Cooper — of “The Big Bang Theory” — is a theoretical physicist. He is a pure scientist (or the character is). Like Einstein, he doesn’t care a whit for applied science (note in the show Sheldon’s low opinion of Leonard because the latter is an experimental physicist. The suggestion that he needs to conduct experiments to prove his theories makes Sheldon laugh….or snicker.) As a general rule, however, scientists do not eschew experimentation. Indeed, there is an episode of “Big Bang” where Sheldon and Leonard collaborate and are asked to deliver a paper together. In any event, experiments are routinely conducted to verify theories in science, though at the highest levels of theoretical physics mathematics sometimes can suffice. Einstein didn’t need to conduct experiments to establish his theory of relativity, for example.

But there are other sciences, of course, both exact (like physics and chemistry) and inexact (like geology and biology) which rely on mathematics to a greater or lesser degree. And there are social sciences that mimic the exact sciences by using mathematics in the form of statistics — though their experiments and even their calculations are notoriously inexact, dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. But all of these sciences, exact or not, rely on the empirical method — looking and recording — and some sort of calculation. And all are desirous of knowing why things happen as they do. Why do objects tend toward the center of the earth?  Why do blond parents have red-headed children? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Scientists want to know. That’s what they do: they look and they record, and they draw tentative conclusions that lead to theories that are in turn verified — or falsified — by experiments or new empirical data.

Technology, on the  other hand, is not science for a number of reasons. Technology is all about “How?” and not “Why?” On “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz is the designated technologist. Because Howard has “only” a Master’s Degree from M.I.T. in engineering — which involves considerable math and physics — he is relegated on this show to designing toilets and telescopes for NASA –merely technical tasks. In a word, he figures out how to do things and he does them without asking why. In the case of toilets for the space station, the “why” is fairly obvious, but what about the “why” question as it regards the entire NASA endeavor? Few of us question that at all. In any event, the difference between science and technology was made clear in an episode of “Big Bang” when Penny’s car engine failed but the scientists could not fix it even though they knew all about how internal combustion engines work — in theory.

As Jacques Ellul said many years ago, ours is a technological age: we tend to denigrate theory. We laugh at Sheldon, not just because Jim Parsons is a superb comic actor and the writers have given him some juicy lines, but because he is a theoretician in a world in which, strange to say, Howard Wolowitz is much more at home, much more like the rest of us. Like Howard, we don’t seem to care about why things happen as they do, we just keep doing what we are doing and worry about the consequences later on when they become another problem to be solved. And we are convinced someone can solve it regardless of how complicated it might be — a dangerous assumption indeed.

Interestingly, what neither the scientist nor the technologist ventures into are the ethical implications of what they do. Thus, we have theoretical physicists who work together to develop the Atom bomb. Or we have medical technologists who conduct experiments to determine whether certain cosmetics will blind rabbits without asking whether or not this is the right thing to do. We have medical researchers who give placebos to cancer patients as part of an experiment. There’s a wonderful scene in one of the “Big Bang” episodes where Penny asks the guys why they rigged their computer so it could turn on the light by sending signals around the world; they respond in unison: “because we can.” Note that even Sheldon chimes in. Indeed. That is our society’s answer, and we are content with it — until a crisis arises that we simply cannot fix because we failed to look deep enough or far enough — or ask “why?” As Ellul suggests, it is precisely the failure to inquire into the moral and theoretical implications of what we do that gets us in trouble. And some of it is deep trouble indeed.