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My Study Hates Your Study

Can art save us from science?

I’m no sports fan—I think people should only run if it’s to save a life. Somebody else’s life. (These joggers are always coming at you, panting—in the middle of an airborne pandemic!) But I do feel for the visually impaired athlete at the Tokyo Paralympics who collided with a driverless bus. Luckily, he was not seriously injured, but the incident illustrates our doomed enchantment with science and technology. First, some dopey scientist comes up with some dopey idea for a new gizmo. Robot vehicles, say! Next, in awe of any scientific advance whatsoever, some corporation or government or billionaire buys in. The gizmo gets made. And finally . . . we all get annihilated by it. The same thing happened with the atomic bomb.

Scientists try to crush us every day. They’re always coming up with yet another disgraceful idea. And we’re so used to their barbarism, we barely stop to wonder what they’ll do to us next. But consider a world without science and technology. No dead zones in the sea. No nuclear industry, emitting godknowswhat everywhere. No cars every damn place. No Chernobyl. No Thalidomide. No manmade carcinogens in every fruit and vegetable. No deep vein thrombosis from plane trips. No AirTags stalking you. No Africanized bees biting your ass. No space shuttle disasters paraded before us again and again. No pitiful Laika blasted into the beyond. Why, in a world without science, we might even be spared SCIENCE FICTION.

Without science, there’d be no DDT to bug Rachel Carson. No ammonium nitrate to inspire Timothy McVeigh, or destroy Beirut. No air strikes on Afghan toddlers either, and remote-control assassinations in Iran. The connection is not accidental: scientists have a real weakness for explosions. From physicists, geologists, and mining engineers, to frackers, arms manufacturers, fireworks choreographers, and high school chemistry teachers desperate for love, these are people who just can’t resist blowing things to smithereens. Gunpowder wasn’t enough for them, though. They developed chemical and biological weapons too. What altruism! I mean it, what altruism?

Day after day, scientists monkey with the natural world without our permission, risking our lives and the future of all life on earth, on reckless, ruthless hunches, gripes, dares, and ego trips, sometimes in service to some decrepit old despot. Is it a gambling mania, or just plain old malevolence? Well, we know what motivated Mengele and the inventors of nerve gas, phosgene, napalm, and Agent Orange, as well as the imaginary Dr. Strangelove, a composite of them all: sadism. The expression “mad scientist” exists for a reason.

Wuhan’s coronavirus research unit was partially funded by the U.S. and monitored by the World Health Organization. WHO, you ask? Yes. But if Covid-19 did escape from that institution—which we may never know—it certainly wasn’t the first time a carefully contained virus escaped its fallible human captors. This is what viruses do! SARS, smallpox, dengue, typhoid, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, bird flu, H1N1, foot-and-mouth disease, and anthrax have all snuck out of supposedly secure (but often poorly managed) scientific establishments across the globe. It was probably just crazy good luck that we didn’t get another onslaught of 1918 flu too when, in 1951 and 1995, scientists exhumed some of its original victims, preserved in the Alaskan permafrost, and mailed bits of them across the country by FedEx and UPS. The ultimate chain letter.

Scientists apparently see it as sensible, justified, desirable, excusable, or maybe just good plain fun to play with plague in poorly sealed labs. Pandora’s a lightweight, compared. Some of the virologists studying coronaviruses in Wuhan were also using “humanized mice.” Now, I try hard not to hate EVERYTHING about our maddened species, but humanizing mice goes too far.

They Want it CRISPR

I know, I know. Trump, the Republicans, anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, flat-Earthers, pro-lifers, climate change deniers, racists, creationists, UFO abductees, religious zealots, incel idiots, and even some Canadians have given skepticism about science a bad name, maybe irrevocably so. This, too, is an outrage! Taking scientists with a pinch of salt seems to me the only valid stance left to us in the midst of the science-spawned holocaust in which we find ourselves. Stephen Hawking said we’d outgrown philosophers; I think it’s scientists.

Scientists try to crush us every day. They’re always coming up with yet another disgraceful idea.

I’m all for masks and vaccinations (it’s beyond paradoxical that some health care workers aren’t!) and hearing aids and antihistamines and asthma inhalers, and I’m not knocking doctors who go about in helicopters in Haiti either, removing cataracts and that sort of stuff. Sure, fix a few things if you would. Make yourselves useful. But nuclear physicists? Nobody in his right mind would create a nuclear bomb. NO ONE. (Oppenheimer was a sloppy slob, a walking disaster of a guy.) And once they saw the containment implications of radioactive waste, nobody would bang on about the inevitability of nuclear energy.

We can’t say we weren’t warned, starting with Mary Shelley’s psychopathically power-crazed Dr. Frankenstein. Not much of a family man, he was prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of a scientific advance. And in the fifties, there were about a million disaster movies that prophetically start off with an atom bomb test, leading to the creation of one mammoth, lonely, confused, demonic, scaly, radioactive, mutated, delinquent car-crusher and homewrecker who proceeds to carry out nature’s righteous revenge on us. That behemoth is now here for real: climate change. And what brought it into being? Science.

Yet a layperson can’t even murmur “lab leak theory” without getting slapped about! I guess we’re just supposed to “lay” back and think of science. But it’s not pretty. Scientists steal people’s cancer cells and DNA, gleefully deluge us daily with a million minimally tested artificial substances, and are known to have experimented on slaves, students, prisoners, soldiers, and the disabled. Science geeks think their work is too important to be constrained by niceties concocted by the sane and the kind.

The eco-oriented MOVE commune in Philadelphia, founded in the seventies to fight against, as the late Delbert Africa put it, “this murderous, racist, sexist rotten-ass system” (the U.S.A.), rescued dogs and campaigned against zoos and circuses. An eviction dispute arose, which the Philadelphia police, a real clued-up bunch, resolved by dropping a bomb on American citizens on American soil. This drastic act burnt down not just the commune but sixty neighboring properties and massacred eleven people, five of them children. A bit heavy-handed perhaps? But in America, property is god and eviction often means extermination.

The crimes of the police were then compounded by Princeton University, which got hold of some of the dead children’s bones to use as teaching aids in a forensic science course called “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” “Adventures!” See what I mean about scientists? You wouldn’t want to share a doughnut with such a person, much less the entire world. What we need are adventures in humility.

Distrust of Meta’s Narratives

Name me one scientific discipline free from destructive practices. Geologists frack. Early metallurgists facilitated large-scale warfare. Chemists devise date rape drugs. Biologists and zoologists patronize animals. Marine biologists patronize fish. Anthropologists patronize people. Mathematicians patronize everybody! (And bore us rigid.) Chemists and physicists routinely despoil the Earth. Botanists cherish the occasional tree perhaps, but they also devise herbicides and pesticides. Ornithologists seem innocuous enough, but what a boon they’ve been to taxidermists. And entomologists stick pins in bumble bees! This is no way to behave.

Animals think and feel. A lot more than some people I could mention.

Psychologists and psychiatrists, scientists of a kind, boast of mapping the mind. What, with that clumsy array of drugs and jargon, those pathetic charts and life goals and cognitive therapy homework sheets? Don’t be absurd. Literature’s the only way to approach any understanding of the human psyche. (And occasionally psychoanalysis—but that, too, is an art, not a science.) A counsellor once told me, “We don’t deal with dreams here.” Well, fine, but the rest of us have to!

Take computers. Please. In the space of a generation or two, we’ve become enslaved, hypnotized, imprisoned, and impoverished by these machines, with barely a peep of protest. Okay, some digital devices help regulate heartbeats and insulin levels—bravo! But they’d prefer to kill us. Magnetic for men (such suckers for gadgetry—even the TV remote, they snatch), computers are now vehicles of: scamming, bombing, terrorism, election tampering, fury, hysteria, eye strain, conspiracy theories, cyber-flashing, and the porn industry. IBM’s punch-card machines were proto-computers that worked with gusto organizing Jews for slaughter in WWII. The internet is a hive of hatred. Wikipedia takes a similarly sinister interest in people with Jewish ancestry—in its biographical entries, being Jewish is almost invariably mentioned in the first sentence. Well, why bury the lede? What they’re doing is tracking the Jews, presumably to save Mormons and neo-Nazis the trouble.

According to the latest whistleblower, Facebook’s putting profit before the public good. Big surprise. Facebook, or Meta, born of Zuckerberg’s discontent, breeds discontent. But NOTHING about social media is good for you. Come on, it’s like the Wild West in there!

Just think. Without computers, we would have been spared “the age of communication.” What lousy timing: just when we got really good at communicating, we ran out of anything to say! The Earth is littered with phone masts, the sky dotted with satellites, and our beautiful opposable thumbs are ruining themselves, scrolling away, all so that people can share thoughts on groceries, social media trends, total strangers worth insulting, and the latest annoying acronym. Never has there been such a universal admission of the imbecility of the human species. And to accommodate this inane babble, the internet now consumes much of the electricity on Earth and semiconductor plants drink up all the water—water that should be reserved for nicer plants like redwoods, bluebells, buttercups, and marijuana.

Tools and Users

As if it weren’t bad enough that homicidal misogynists think they have the right to take a woman’s life, scientists take life by the planetload, and they’re so arrogant too! Taking up where religions left off, science has divided us from nature and convinced us we own the world. No insect, snake, lizard, or wildcat, no food chain, is now permitted to exist without our say-so. To back up this hubris, scientists assure us that animals—our comrades, our contemporaries—are stupid, that fish feel no pain, etc., etc. Not true. Animals think and feel. A lot more than some people I could mention.

Behaviorists never shut up about “tool use.” They are obsessed! Tool users and non-tool users, blah blah blah. Nobody knows where this arbitrary criterion even began. Tools, schmools, so long as he loves his mama. Anyway, animals do use tools. What are antlers? What’s a flick of the mane or tail? What is a web or nest or hive? What is sunshine on a fly’s back? What’s a dog doing when he hogs the sofa? What’s a bird bath, or a fence rubbed by the rump of an itchy cow? What are the commandeered shells of hermit crabs . . . if not tools? Orangutans are handy with a hammer, crows design their own cutlery, dolphins make rings of mud or bubbles to trap fish, and octopuses can hide adroitly in coconut shells. Macaques steal tourists’ smartphones and ransom them for treats. And there’s a kea parrot in New Zealand named Bruce who, having lost the top part of his beak, figured out how to preen himself by dragging selected pebbles through his feathers. Bruce invented the comb!

By horrid chance, the Harvard behaviorist B. F. Skinner lived in Cambridge right next door to the Reys, that husband and wife team who created the winning Curious George books for children. Luckily, the Reys didn’t get along with Skinner. Just imagine if they’d hit it off! We’d be left with Predictable George, GoalDirected George, Reinforced George . . .

How we’ve let scientists railroad us though, over and over again! Everyone knew how pollution worked hundreds of years ago, yet still we surrendered the integrity of the whole ecosystem to technology and industrialization. Henry Ford once admitted his own “unintentional” complicity in the ruination of America. The internal combustion engine. Could there be a more evil-sounding phrase? Without cars, there would be no car accidents, driverless or otherwise. No parking problems, parking meters, parking tickets, stop lights, traffic jams, exhaust fumes, roadkill, road rage, road movies, car chases, carjacking, and second-hand car dealers. We’d be spared spaghetti junctions, ever-expanding highway networks, and a billion billboards, too, blasting us with stuff to buy. And those sad little cardboard pine trees swinging over dashboards, warped by acid rain.

There is only one good thing about cars: horses and donkeys must have been sick to death of taking us places. Drive yourself to your animal research lab, why dontcha?

All we ever wanted from science and technology were:

Pain relief
Eye care
Laxatives and their opposite
Suntan lotion
Earthquake warnings
A really reliable potato peeler
A decent egg-poacher (still waiting on this one)
Sustainable energy
Hydrometers, so you can tell if your Primitivo is the full 14 percent
And a few tricks for not getting fat or pregnant.

That’s about it. That’s really all we needed from these characters. But off they went, whittling the beauties of the world down to their component DNA and approaching every dark mystery of existence by lighting a Bunsen burner and slicing some unwitting creature in half. You can’t move for scientists now, vivisecting this and vivisecting that, abusers of all they survey. And it’s not as if they know what they’re doing. They’re always contradicting each other. They can’t agree on a thing. For every study that supposedly proves some point, there’s another one that proves the first study stinks. My study hates your study.

Hoodwinked and bamboozled, we have delivered ourselves and the entire natural world into the hands of some of the most depraved, misguided, benumbed, and untrustworthy people around, people who literally did not study the humanities. Look at them in their white coats, putting on that old innocent act as they push past us zhlubs who don’t know a pipette from a popsicle. Them and their so-called findings, their po-faced secrecy, their adored methodologies, their infuriating complacency, their lives devoted to a lack of forethought and disconnection from well-established codes of decency, but ending in tender and much-lauded deathbed confessions, ravings and regrets. Boo hoo. I don’t buy it. Far from being modest geniuses with our best interests at heart, most scientists are narcissistic monsters who should each be issued with a Melania Trump jacket: “I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?”

Now, thanks to climate change, we drown in windowless New York basements, choke on algae blooms, burn to death fleeing forest fires, get clobbered by twisters where twisters never twisted before, and die from heat exhaustion on previously survivable adventure hikes. Yet we still forgive scientists. We are living through manmade mass extinction, with killer hornets, deer ticks, and Covid variants the only organisms to thrive. Yet still we forgive the scientists. We even hire them back to save us from the catastrophe they engineered! Canny chaps. Shit on the rug, then get paid to scoop the poop. It’s a system.

Doctors with Boundaries

When what we need is ART. There are unprincipled people in the arts, too, of course, money-grubbing mini-tyrants who’d pimp their female underlings for a good arts festival sponsorship deal or diss their own mentees to get their paws on a prize. Obnoxious? Definitely. But the chances of such people making the whole earth uninhabitable are pretty slim. It’s not painters who turned the coral reefs white, though some conceptual artists might like to. Sculptors don’t chisel actual holes in the ozone nor change ocean currents, and most composers don’t deliberately deafen whales. Novelists tinker with the fabric of life on the page (a page increasingly made of recycled paper), they don’t mess with the finite substances of the earth. And they never humanize mice. Except when writing for children.

Novelists tinker with the fabric of life on the page, but they don’t mess with the finite substances of the earth. And they never humanize mice.

There are those who claim there’s no conflict between science and the arts. But whatever these placaters, kowtowers, capitalists, priests and other liars may have you believe, art and science can never be pals. Artists have about as much to say to scientists as salmon do to the bears who gobble them up, or grass to the lawnmower. Primo Levi may well be the only writer who should ever have attempted to write about science. Chekhov, Rabelais, and Céline were doctors on the side but sensibly kept it to themselves. Some smarmy novelists, hams, FOMO show-offs in search of new friends, attempt collaboration, sheepishly inserting bits of science into their work. It’s a very sorry spectacle. Don’t they know the arts are at war with science? Morality is at war with science, and resistance, not sidling up, is our only option.

Art and science will never understand each other. For instance, scientists include spoilers at the beginning of their reports—the so-called “abstract.” Where’s the drama in that? They also admit the “limitations” of their studies—a no-no in the arts. In science, new and original ideas have to be lengthily peer-reviewed; in the arts, reviews are mercifully short. And, most unadventurously, scientific experiments have to be repeatable; in the arts, “replication” is seen as plagiarism and only tolerated when Agatha Christie or Bernard Herrmann does it.

From birth (now debased by ubiquitous electronic devices and obstetricians), we are helpless against science. Schools now teach nothing but science, and there’s no funding for the arts. But science is patently a dead end! What matters is nature, what matters is civilization and humanity’s finest achievements: the arts. Not splitting the atom, art! Peace, not war. The arts are a moral check on science, and one of the few spaces left in which to think, aside from the bathtub.

Scientists are after all terrible at establishing an ethical stance. Where are the ethics forms and ethics committees when irreversible pollutants are flung hither and yon? When gender-selective abortions are enlisted in aid of misogyny? Faced with a moral conundrum, scientists simply retreat into their famed neutrality. They have doused the world in their own pitiless objectivity, and it’s scared the hell out of everybody!

You’d think the deep affiliations between science and patriarchy would have been a clue to SOMEBODY that scientists have blown it on the moral rectitude front. Yet, far from being contrite, scientists are often strangely upbeat—an unseemly perkiness, you’d think, amid the final fulfilment of patriarchal violence that they enabled.

Ghosts in a Shell

Nonfiction could be seen as the literary equivalent of scientific objectivity. Fiction, drama, and poetry are freer to explore unchartered artistic territory, one of the last wildernesses on offer. In Hard Times, Dickens is full of contempt for Gradgrind and his love of facts, and in Our Mutual Friend (one of the nineteenth century’s most intrepid expeditions into the novel form), he has a dig at nonfiction: Wegg and Boffin get very little out of reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire together. Boffin keeps wishing it were about the Russian empire, and Wegg’s only got eyes for the veal and ham pie.

Austen’s Emma Woodhouse forms silly schemes. She wrongly thinks she understands people. Her outward treatment of Harriet is reprehensible, but her interior perspective is fascinating. The novel as a literary form was conceived in England, through subjectivity—Jane Austen its mother, Laurence Sterne its father. Given its vicissitudes since, the novel form might well remark:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.”

Thomas Bernhard’s disappointed by the world on almost every level. Science is wholly irrelevant to him; subjectivity is the sustaining force. Art, a private realm immune to marketers, where aesthetics, chance, instinct, emotion, love, sex, transgression, and idiosyncrasy reign. Elfriede Jelinek’s whirlwind tours of the mind amount to an atlas of subjectivity, dotted with innumerable oppressions. She can’t stop critiquing the weirdness of having a body at all.

Gogol’s absurdist take on Russian bureaucrats, “The Nose,” rebels against anatomical fact: a nose disengages itself from a guy’s face, dresses up in fine clothes and takes carriages all over St. Petersburg before, just as inexplicably, returning to its former physiological duties so as to enable its owner to resume his craven social-climbing. And in Wallace Shawn’s monologue, The Fever, one sick person’s febrile thought processes condense all of Marx to both comical and devastating effect.

Leonardo, Cézanne, Braque, and Picasso tried to depict on canvas how we actually look at things. Art goes where science can’t. But we live in a society that’s abandoned subjectivity—subjectivity that connects us to other consciousnesses and experience—in favor of objectivity. What’s left is the ghost of subjectivity, a depressingly passive version of imagination. So instead of contemplating King Lear’s confusion, Tess Durbeyfield’s rights and wrongs, or the lechery of Scarpia, people stare at screens, awaiting Paris Hilton’s cooking tips. Starved of whimsy, flummoxed by facts, crying out for the non-objective, the ragged and enraged consumer units of today, always being told something, or sold something, try to locate some remnant of interiority in yoga, magical thinking, mindfulness and mindlessness. There are people who spend all day long getting themselves calm, clean, fit, pious, sober, healed, “anchored,” and “centered,” in order to overcome “hurt” and “live their truth.” All day, every single waking moment devoted to seeking some unconvincing form of beatitude or, barring that, a socially acceptable catatonia.

Calm is like gold dust in the twenty-first century. Everybody’s hoarding their own personal supply of it, every home an ashram full of express-delivered essential oils, bralettes, and sweatpants. WHILE NATURE AND DEMOCRACY DISINTEGRATE BEFORE OUR EYES! I mean, what is there to be so calm about? If only these meditators and self-debilitators tried to think about something once in a while, rather than nothing. If, instead of restraining themselves, they restrained our scientific overlords! Since, once we debunk the scientists, we can start centering, healing, and anchoring the environment.

What I regret about the coming apocalypse and our self-imposed annihilation is the loss of books and people who can read them, the loss of tens of thousands of years of human thought and interchange. Music! Ceramics, textiles, history, tradition, cooking. (Real cooking.) Jokes, sorrows, ecstasy, empathy, sensuality, desire. Wine, wit, and, yes, dreams. Horse chestnut-shaped handbags . . . It was highly inventive of us, don’t you think, to create so many distinct languages too. We really accomplished a lot, before turning the world over to myopic, philistine, one-track-minded devil-may-care jobsworths, who have filled our babies with microplastics. Thieves! We handed them the keys to the castle, and they left it bare. They have scampered off with our birthright and made life hell on Earth. We gave scientists carte blanche to do with us what they will, and they did: fifty shades of flay.

We can never reverse what a mess we’ve made of the natural world. But once we’re gone, at least, our crummy cars will start to rot. In a year, they’ll just be rusting wrecks. Our hideous buildings will be invaded. Birds will nest in the shelves among the redundant books, foxes will establish lairs under sofas. Blackbirds will peck at jam jars left on the kitchen table until—being smart—they get them open. Every animal on Earth will be radioactive, of course, and will suffer terrible diseases and deaths, but they might live long enough to breed.

But I’m sorry, it’s not enough for me. These little pockets of survival, though precious and deserving, don’t make up for the laziness, the tragedy, the shame, the irresponsibility of our own self-destruction. We created something here! Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Giotto. Bach, Puccini. Roman murals and mosaics. Chess, wine, chicken biryani, jack-o’-lanterns, Amish quilts. Venice, for chrissake! Poodles, the pyramids, Jane Eyre, the Marx Brothers! And then we threw it all away.