Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Armageddon Science Post

I found the section on antimatter weapons to be particularly illustrative of some of the ‘weirdness’ associated with this whole discussion.  The speculative nature of antimatter technology represents a Zeitgeist of postmodern American consciousness.  I think it’s actually cute that anyone is even concerned about the technology being a threat.  During our discussion I and others mentioned the fictitious nature of the technology – how can one devise a weapon that would itself be destroyed on contact at the subatomic level (and unleash a cascade of unintended consequences, like destroying the user) when it comes into contact with the most basic fundamental subatomic constructs of the universe?  The mass media is partly responsible for these weird fears, true, with the popularity of sci-fi shows and movies that showcase fictional technologies such as this as if we're right around the corner from develping them (along with the ever-popular and equally untenable ‘singularity drive’), but every generation of Americans has had their bogeymen.  I think the fear of weapons such as these and talk of the ‘direction’ we’re heading in (as if humankind suddenly started inventing scary things in the twentieth century) reflects a mistrust of science that is characteristic of postmodernist academic and popular thought.  If everything is relative and all perspectives are valid because truth does not exist or is undiscoverable, then scientific endeavors become, at best, something to be laughed at during hipster wine party gatherings, and at worst, the end of all things to come.  This mistrust of science is hypocritical, of course; after all, without science, postmodernism (and all the postmodern comforts of society that exist as a result of science and therefore allow hipsters to complain about everything) would not exist.

I think this discussion is completely relevant to what we discuss in the social studies classroom.  Obviously a competent individual might discuss some of the more interesting technical jargon if he or she was knowledgeable, but one could also skim the surface of the issue and discuss it from a policy perspective with equal skill.  Plus, it’s kind of important to discuss things like ‘where society is heading’ – that’s our job as social studies teachers!

I wanted to respond to the question about nuclear weapons and whether or not their usage constitutes genocide, since I only managed to type out a haphazard reply in the chat window.  Nuclear weapons are tools of genocide only if they are used for genocide, just as a gun may be a murder weapon or a defensive weapon or a hunting tool depending on how it is used.  Genocide involves the massive extermination of an entire group of people because of their membership in the group identity under siege, and is perpetuated by a centralized power structure, such as a fascist state-ethnic apparatus.  Nuclear weapons, by contrast, have no agenda.  They may be used against military forces, population centers, production centers, etc, with no regard whatsoever to the ethnic, religious, or cultural ‘make-up’ of the inhabitants/targets, just as a gun could be used to kill an innocent bystander, a would-be rapist, or a deer.

The target of the nuclear strike also matters.  A nuclear weapon used against a civilian population center with little strategic value is a misuse of assets and a war crime.  However, are there ever civilians in war, particularly if the civilian populace is directly supporting the war machine economically and politically?  Soldiers cannot fight without resources from the home front – who in fact supplies those resources?

Finally, nuclear weapons are a successful deterrent from aggression by a major foreign power.  The wars we have been involved in since World War II have been bloody and unpleasant, but unremarkable compared to the scale of the conflicts of the Second World War.  Nuclear weapons ensure that such a war will not happen again, although they carry risks themselves and must be vigilantly protected.  Rogue agents could, in fact, come across an unsecure warhead (there are hundreds in the former satellite nations of the Soviet Union under poor guard) and use it to make a political or religious statement.  Every decision, then, must be made as if our fingers were hovering over the 'launch' button - with care and reverence for the awesome destructive force of the weapons and the horrors they unleash.


  1. I would probably not have connected hipsters to a fear of technology and a mistrust of science, but then again maybe they feel that such things are too mainstream. Hipsters are so wacky. They might as well be the social equivalent of anti-matter since they hate everything they don't like and make people want to destroy everything.

    Anyway, like I said during the Big Blue Button session that classifying something as a genocide really changes the complexion and feelings that people might have towards an event. Why are people so reluctant to label things as genocide and why are people so quick to defend the idea that things aren't genocide despite there still being a tremendous amount of death? Maybe with the amount of possible destruction that modern weapons can cause we should just label any kind of use as a act of genocide at least against humanity. If we start saying that nuclear weapons are agents of genocide maybe we'll be even less likely to use them or, even better, move away from them. No guarantees of course.

  2. Good one, Jason! Shawn, of course I like your take on the classroom value of this, but am really struck by your comment about postmodernism. I tend to agree. I think of science as continually adapting to our greater understanding of the natural world, not as continual self-refutation. People can try to pervert science for their own selfish goals, but to me there is an inherent integrity in the scientific method. I like what Jacob Bronowski said: "Science is a tribute to what we can know, even though we are fallible."

  3. Shawn, I like your comment about how you think it’s cute that anyone is even concerned about antimatter technology becoming a threat. The idea that it could be made into a weapon seems inherently ridiculous to me for exactly the reasons you mentioned. As science fiction hysteria, it is nicely paralleled by the fear of machines gaining consciousness and killing us. From what I understand of the most up-to-date research concerning artificial intelligence as of 2011 or so, the inner workings of machines bear no resemblance whatsoever to the inner workings of a human brain. There is simply nothing in our current level of scientific understanding that can account for the "ghost in the machine" of human consciousness, and scientists are still lightyears away from even being able to replicate the "machine" of the human brain. I believe one of the quotes from the documentary I watched was something to the effect of, "we're more likely to see time travel in our lifetimes"; i.e. this is just science fiction. The public's understanding of these kinds of esoteric sciences is just so fuzzy that anything begins to seem possible.
    I have to agree more with Jason, however, about the genocide question. Nuclear weapons have no particular agenda, but the centralized power structures that wield them certainly do. The one time in history when the nuke has actually been used in warfare (U.S. on Japan) was absolutely genocide by your own definition in that the U.S. was engaged in the "massive extermination of an entire group of people because of their membership in the group identity under siege". Any time you wage war on civilians indiscriminately with something as broad in impact as a nuke, you are committing genocide by the mirriam-webster online definition of the word as, "the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group". This not a term that applies only ethnically-, religiously- or culturally-motivated mass murder, and I agree with Jason that, "if we start saying that nuclear weapons are agents of genocide maybe we'll be even less likely to use them or, even better, move away from them". At least that's the hope.
    Anyway, best of luck next year!