Science, Predictions & Optimism

IMAG0071About seven years ago I bought A Treasury of Science from Vinnies for about $2. It is an old beaten anthology from 1943 of influential scientific texts from Newton, Franklin, Einstein, Huxley, Jenner etc.

The final section of the book looks at Man’s Future. I have never read the book, but last week I had a flick through it and thought Kirley F. Mather’s essay The Future of Man as an Inhabitant of the Earth (1940) looked interesting. The optimism (or hubris) of the essay jars with the current mood and scientific evidence.

All the evidence combines to lead us unmistakably to the conclusion that for many scores, if not hundreds of millions of years to come, the earth will continue to be comfortably habitable abode for creatures like ourselves.
Surface temperatures of the earth, the most important item in any consideration of its long-range habitability, are determined by the receipt of solar energy distributed through atmospheric agencies…Minor changes in climate will doubtless occur as they have in the last few thousand years.

Leaving aside the Australian Government and others who think everything will be fine for “hundreds of millions of years”, today there is a fear that over the next 50 years habitability of the earth will dramatically change.

Of course, this doesn’t justify simplistic dissmissals of science – “they got it wrong then so they can get it wrong now”. But that in the space of 75 years the paradigms and frameworks through which we understand ourselves and our relation to the environment dramatically shift. Such that we could uncharitably accuse Mather naivety, as people 75 years hence may, with greater justification, accuse us of being slow to react.

Shall I Appear on Television?

I bought Pierre Bourdieu’s little book ‘On Television and Journalism’ for $1 from a bargain bin. This alone illustrates the disconnect between the market and things of value – a concern of Bourdieu’s in relation to what is considered “news”. However, maybe it was in the bargain bin because it was written in 1996. What could a pre-internet, pre-9/11, pre-social media book have to say of relevance about television and journalism?

Perhaps nothing. I haven’t read it. But the below excerpt suggests that many of the contemporary practices of gathering and disseminating “expert opinion” in news media would not surprise Bourdieu.

If the media today had existed in full force at the time, [Mallarmé] he would have wondered: “Shall I appear on TV? How can I reconcile the exigency of ‘purity’ inherent in scientific and intellectual work, which necessarily leads to esotericism, with the democratic interest in making these achievements available to the greatest number?”

Earlier, I pointed out two effects of television. On the one hand, it lowers the “entry fee” in a certain number of fields – philosophical, juridical, and so on. It can designate a sociologists, writer, or philosopher people who haven’t paid their dues from the viewpoint of the internal definition of the profession. On the other hand, television has the capacity to reach the greatest number of individuals. What I find difficult to justify is the fact that the extension of the audience is used to legitimate the lowering of the standards of entry into the field. People may object to this as elitism, a simple defense of the besieged citadel of big science and highculture, or even, an attempt to close out ordinary people…In fact, I am defending the conditions necessary for the production and diffusion of the highest human creations. To escape the twin traps of elitism or demagogy we must work to maintain, even to raise the requirements for the right of entry – the entry fee – into the fields of production. I have said that this is what I want for sociology, a field that suffers from the fact that the entry fee is too low – and we must reinforce the duty to get out, to share what we have found, while at the same time improving the conditions and the means for doing so.

Pierre Bourdieu, On Television and Journalism, Pluto Press, 1996, p.65

It appears one of Bourdieu’s main frustrations is with Bernard-Henri Lévy, of whom “no sociologist worthy of the name talks about” (p. 54).