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DSC_0697Graphene and At Home: A Short History of Private Life


Two stories on NPR this morning gave me pause: Graphene and At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Rolling around in my head was an essay I had read on Monday evening, which raised the question of whether practical theology might best be thought of as art or science. In The Challenge of Practical Theology, Stephen Pattison argues that “sciencism” has run rough shod over, well, nearly everything. We are so enamored by science, he says, that we measure most everything else against it.

Well, why not? I mean graphene, it turns out, is a carbon compound, and the new wonder material that will revolutionize everything from internal computer hardware and cell phones to touch screens and airplanes. And the two guys who discovered it? Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, well, they only made their find in 2004. Six years later they have the highest award in physics: the Nobel Prize which comes with a $1.5 million pot of money. Scientist rock stars! And they escaped an unfriendly crumbling Soviet Union and fled to Great Britain in the early 1990s. Turns out they like to do crazy experiments on Friday afternoons. And they found this new wonder material with Scotch tape (another modern scientific wonder) for goodness sake. Drama, fun, success, money and fame. Of course we are in love with science.

The very next interview of the morning on NPR was with Bill Bryson, hilarious story-teller and popularizer of science and social science. He starts reading from his new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and soon he’s drawing me into fascinating questions like why do we have salt and pepper on the table rather than salt and cinnamon? Why do most forks have four tines? When did chimneys start ventilating homes?

The history and anthropology that goes into figuring out answers to questions like these is not pure science, hard science, but social science, wanna-be science. In this category comes psychology, sociology, anthropology, and yes, even the study of religion can fall into this category by some counts.

So what?

Why did these stories give me pause?

Well, they are really great illustrations of Pattison’s point. We are absolutely taken by these “discoveries” of both laboratory sciences and social sciences. And we are lulled into thinking that science will answer all the questions, solve all the problems. Pattison even says that science has replaced magic. It explains things beyond what the eyes can see or the mind can imagine. But this is where the myth comes into play. Where sciencism distorts the power of sciences of all kinds. Genuine limits, values and constraints are at play in the work of science. It is not limitless, value-free or able to do all things.

This is not news to you or me.

But it is worth a reminder. One of the things that social sciences and the study of religion try to do is get at a depth of situations which cannot be reduced to formulas. They try to deal with the complex problems of our time like poverty, war, environmental disaster, homelessness, failing economies, the spread of disease, teen suicide, the abuse of power in governments and religions. These are more than just thorny problems, they are what have been called “wicked problems.” They can’t be solved like the puzzles of normal science, or even complex board games like chess. And they can’t simply be resolved by the analysis of economists, sociologists, ethnographers or theologians.

But these are problems that by their very character demand that we address them. They threaten the human situation and life on this planet. And for those of us committed to greater justice, community, love and human flourishing, we have to try. It feels easier to leave the big problems up to the “real” scientists. In a few decades we tell ourselves, they will figure it out. But that may not be the case exactly. Although the social sciences have their limits, and theologies are often dismissed as too parochial, both of these broad disciplines of study and interpretation are needed to work on the “wicked problems” of our time. They carry with them the history and power of stories which can’t be reduced to logic, wisdom of judgment which can’t be reduced to rules, and the beauty of life that can’t be reduced to words.

So now I’ll pause again. And give thanks for science, repent of my own sciencism, and commit myself again to the work of bringing to bear all the best thinking and living I can muster to the wicked problems of our time. How can I possibly do less?

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