The rapid development of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the nineteenth century opened up a whole new world of technology in the twentieth century. One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. This close connection between the physicists and  inventors has become a source of confusion in the sociology and politics of science; a confusion that can damage public’s understanding of science, and consequently, science itself. Therefore, the disentanglement of this confusion is a necessary prerequisite for a true appreciation of the nature and the workings of the scientific enterprise.

Science is blind to its future human utility

Science discovers the laws of nature blindly, purposelessly, and without regards to its potential human use. If it has an eye, it is to see the hidden secrets of nature. If it has a purpose, it is to connect what is known to what is unknown. If it is human, it is only due to its apparent confinement to the planet Earth. Any other intelligent species, regardless of its location in the universe will discover the same science. The fact that scientific laws are discovered by scientists, who happen to be human beings, does not make science itself human-dependent.

That science is void of any humanistic trait is evident from its history of development. It started in Egypt and Babylon, moved to Greece and India, went back to the Middle East, and finally landed in the West. As diverse as these civilizations were, and as violently as they clashed, the transfer of science was always inevitable, because it empowered the conquering civilizations with new means to rule more effectively. Unlike other culturally motivated characteristics of humans such as language, which has numerously been trampled to extinction by history, science has always strengthened on passage from one culture to the next. The only exception is the passage from Greece to Rome where it stagnated for almost two millennia.

Technology is application of science to human needs

Technology, on the other hand, applies science sightedly, purposefully, and humanly, and as such, is very much dependent on culture, politics, economy, and all the other characteristics of the human society. In fact the very word “technology” comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning art or artifice. Just as a sculptor uses the raw material such as stone and clay to create a statue for human pleasure and human consumption, so does a technician use the raw material such as wires and circuits to create a television set for human pleasure and human consumption.

The rapid development of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the nineteenth century opened up a whole new world of technology in the twentieth century. One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. This close connection between the physicists and  inventors has become a source of confusion in the sociology and politics of science; a confusion that can damage public’s understanding of science, and consequently, science itself. Therefore, the disentanglement of this confusion is a necessary prerequisite for a true appreciation of the nature and the workings of the scientific enterprise.

Science is blind to its future human utility

Science discovers the laws of nature blindly, purposelessly, and without regards to its potential human use. If it has an eye, it is to see the hidden secrets of nature. If it has a purpose, it is to connect what is known to what is unknown. If it is human, it is only due to its apparent confinement to the planet Earth. Any other intelligent species, regardless of its location in the universe will discover the same science. The fact that scientific laws are discovered by scientists, who happen to be human beings, does not make science itself human-dependent.

That science is void of any humanistic trait is evident from its history of development. It started in Egypt and Babylon, moved to Greece and India, went back to the Middle East, and finally landed in the West. As diverse as these civilizations were, and as violently as they clashed, the transfer of science was always inevitable, because it empowered the conquering civilizations with new means to rule more effectively. Unlike other culturally motivated characteristics of humans such as language, which has numerously been trampled to extinction by history, science has always strengthened on passage from one culture to the next. The only exception is the passage from Greece to Rome where it stagnated for almost two millennia.

Technology is application of science to human needs

Technology, on the other hand, applies science sightedly, purposefully, and humanly, and as such, is very much dependent on culture, politics, economy, and all the other characteristics of the human society. In fact the very word “technology” comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning art or artifice. Just as a sculptor uses the raw material such as stone and clay to create a statue for human pleasure and human consumption, so does a technician use the raw material such as wires and circuits to create a television set for human pleasure and human consumption.

Once the discovered laws of nature are put to application, they put on a human face with all the cultural, political, and social cosmetics fashionable at the time. The same engine that drives a truckful of food to a flood-stricken community can propel a tank to bulldoze dwellings, schools, and people. It is technology (not science) that takes electricity, a fundamental force of nature, and either warms houses in the winters of Alaska, or electrocutes a death row inmate in Texas. The laws of chemistry will not change whether we use them to make aspirin or nerve gas.

The task of science is solely the discovery of the laws of nature. Technology (including medicine) uses these laws to meet human needs. Science is blind to future applications and is independent of any social, political, or economic conditions. Technology is driven by them.

The difference between science and technology is highlighted by the difference between the  biographies of scientists and inventors. Samuel Morse and Thomas Alva Edison had no background in science, but very much interested in getting rich by inventing gadgets that could attract many customers. On the other hand, Michael Faraday, despite his poverty and lack of formal education, was very much interested in – and simply curious about – the workings of magnets and electric currents. And this interest and curiosity drove him to acquire all the necessary scientific background before he could embark on some crucial discoveries in physics and chemistry.

With only a few exceptions, scientists have had to master their scientific fields before they could contribute to them. This typically – but not exclusively – involves attending universities and obtaining the  highest possible degree in their chosen field. Inventors, on the  other hand, have very little or no training in their “field” of interest. In fact, there is probably as much training in “How to become an inventor” as there is in “How to make a fortune.”

Nowadays the funding agencies of science and their decision makers expect practical applications (or potential for quick applications) from any scientific investigation. Yet the history of physics reveals that the most drastic changes in our civilization arising from applied technology were the progeny of some seemingly fruitless exercise of human curiosity. Who could have predicted that the tinkering of the lodestone and amber of the sixteenth century would give rise to the transmission of information over hundreds of miles in a fraction of a second?  Yet the technology of modern telecommunication is based entirely on electric charges, conductors, wires, and magnets, the toys of the earlier practitioners of seemingly futile exercises of human curiosity.

Science and values

The confusion caused by identifying science and technology has prompted some science critics to attribute technological catastrophes to science itself. Deepak Chopra, for example, writes:1 “Science celebrates its triumphs, which are many, and excuses its catastrophes, which are also numerous–and growing. The atomic bomb delivered us into an age of mass destruction that brings night terrors just to contemplate. The environment has been disastrously disrupted by emissions spewing from the machines that technology gives us to make life better. Yet supporters of science shrug off these threats as either side effects or failures of social policy. Morality, we are told, isn’t the responsibility of science.”[p. 5]

The same science-versus-technology confusion made by spiritualists like Chopra is also made by the academic social critics of science who dismiss the notion of “value-free science,” that is, a science that is free from morality and ethics. Thus, in the introduction of his book, Value-Free Science?, Robert Proctor writes:

Still we often hear that however foul its application, science itself is pure. Science may be political in its application, but not in its origin and structure. And certainly it is true that science and technology alone are hardly a threat to world peace. Politics and moralities stand behind our sciences and give them life; science can be used for good or evil. This is one sense of the “neutrality” of science – that science (or technology) “in itself” is neither good nor bad; that science may be used  or it may be abused.

Note how the two words “science” and “technology” come together. Although the author starts the paragraph with “science” alone, he immediately conjoins “technology” to it, and in the last sentence, he practically equates the two by using the parenthetical phrase “or technology.” This allows the author to shift the attention from science to technology and to cite numerous examples of its destructive (and certainly value-laden) application. The good or bad and use or abuse are already incorporated in technology. Nuclear physics is the science behind both the MRI of medicine and the bomb of the military. The latter two are technologies, and they are by no means “neutral:” MRI is good, bomb is bad. Any attachment of neutrality to technology opens the possibility of looking for something good in a nuclear bomb!

Proctor goes on to say:

Yet this supposed neutrality describes only the simplest technologies, the most abstract principles.  The seven simple machines, perhaps, or the rules of arithmetic, may be neutral in this sense.  But an abstract truth often conceals a concrete lie.  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Yet is it surprising that a society that surrounds itself with guns will use them? … Tools, we realize have alternative uses; the knife bought for cooking might be used for killing. Yet knives or levers are not what modern science-based technology is all about. A nuclear power plant, cruise missile, or linear accelerator can hardly be used for ends other than those for which they are designed. Science-based technologies are increasingly end-specific: the means constrain the ends; it is no longer easy to separate the origins of a tool from its intended use.  What does it mean to “abuse” a cruise missile or a neutron bomb?

Since these are typical assertions in the war against value-free science, I’ll analyze them in detail so that you can judge whether the quote implies a value-laden science. First let me correct the author in his favor and emphasize that even the simplest machines are value-laden, because they are built with a human need in mind.  A lever and a catapult are technologies that are based on the simplest science, arithmetic. Yet one is used to lift a boulder blocking the irrigation route of a village, and the other to hurl fire to kill the enemy. So, it is wrong to ascribe any neutrality to even the simplest machines. The neutrality should correctly be ascribed to the science (arithmetic or algebra) behind the technology and not to the technology itself.

  1. Chopra, D. and Mlodinow, L. War of the Worldviews, Harmony Books, NY 2011.

Technological invention applies the knowledge gained through science to create things specifically designed for human use.  This principle applies to all technology, past, present, and future. The only difference is that the inventions of thousands of years ago (simple machines) are so simple that nonscientists like Proctor can understand them, and, therefore, can separate them from the science of that time (arithmetic). However, modern technology, which is based on such highly mathematical disciplines as electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics, is much harder to separate from the complicated science that went into it.

It is not the simplicity of science that makes it neutral. General theory of relativity, quantum field theory, electromagnetism, and Newtonian mechanics are as neutral as arithmetic. Just as arithmetic, they are laws stated in the language of mathematics, generally in the form of differential equations, that describe the behavior of (the constituents of) the universe. This fact is extremely hard to understand for somebody who has not studied these equations and their meaning, and only sees their technological applications.

The often quoted sentence, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is so obvious a tautology that it is pointless.  It is as pointless as saying: “Cars don’t drive, people do,” or “Knives don’t cut, people do,” or “Pencils don’t write, people do.”  It merely states the simple fact that any machine needs an operator to operate it. There is no “abstract truth” in this. It is as concrete as one can get! Abstract are the laws of science, and there are no concrete lies in them. There is no concrete lie in the universal law of gravitation, or in the four Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, or the Schrödinger equation, or Einstein’s equation of the general theory of relativity. Or the laws of thermodynamics and chemistry. Concrete are the guns and the people who use them.

In the construction of a gun – the barrel, the ignition mechanism, the path of the bullet, and the fabrication of its parts – the laws of motion, thermodynamics, and chemistry may have been used, but these same laws are also used to operate a respirator or a pacemaker. Guns, being the product of a technology motivated, financed, and encouraged by war, were made with no other purpose in mind than to kill. We did not invent the gun with which to brush our teeth! A lot of values, ethics, morality (or lack thereof) has gone into the building of a gun. An abstract truth which conceals no concrete lie is the following statement:

The laws of physics and chemistry don’t kill people, guns do.

This statement captures the essence of the difference between technology (guns) and science (the laws of physics and chemistry), a difference that is overlooked by most critics of science like Proctor.

The relation between ancient science and ancient technology is identical to the relation between modern science and modern technology. Tools, whether invented by a homo erectus, an ancient Egyptian, or a Medieval artisan, are as science-based as the laser used in LASEK; and they are as much a part of technology as cruise missiles and power plants. Knife, at the time of its invention in the Bronze Age, required as much cutting-edge (no pun intended!) science as laser did a few decades ago. And as it was built to replace the old Stone-Age sharp stones, knife was as end-specific as a nuclear power plant, a cruise missile, or a linear accelerator: it was meant to kill and cut with, not to cook with!

A nuclear power plant is a “tool” that uses the abstract principles of physics – such as E=mc2 – to produce electricity for consumption. It comes out of a branch of technology, and, therefore, it is not science!  A cruise missile is nothing but a glorified gun. It is a destructive power which was developed with the clear intention of annihilating buildings and human beings. We can blame science for its production as much as we can blame arithmetic for the production of simple “war” machines of 2000 years ago such as catapults.

A linear accelerator is of a completely different nature.  Although a substantial amount of advanced technology is used in its construction, it is not designed to produce anything for human consumption, and certainly not for his annihilation.  It is a machine that probes the structure of matter to a deeper and deeper level.  One can say that it is a huge microscope capable of “seeing” subatomic particles.  Why the author puts linear accelerators alongside power plants and cruise missiles is unclear.

The complexity of both modern technology and modern science has caused many critics, unfamiliar with either, to confuse the two, equate science with technology and assign “value” to both.  The preceding discussion has shown that while technology is loaded with value, science is completely value-free.