The best science fiction movie of the year has a contradictory message

Lynn Stuart Parramore

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi smash-hit, “The Martian,” which led the box office for almost a month, let loose a blazing rocket of American can-do spirit. At a time when troubles like terrorism, climate change and economic malaise often seem intractable, the movie sends a hopeful message: Never fear, America! If the problem is going to be solved, science and technology can solve it.

Astronaut Mark Watney, portrayed winningly by Matt Damon, looks like the poster boy for STEM education — shorthand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Stranded on Mars, he must survive on meager resources until the next humans arrive, possibly years away. Far away on earth, NASA and a team of crack scientists work frantically to bring him home, while his crewmates, who are now headed for home, buck orders from the top to undertake a daring rescue mission.

Fortunately, Watney has a weapon more powerful than a forbidding alien climate. Whatever the challenge — dwindling food supplies, lack of water, inadequate transport — Watney moves boldly to “science the shit out of it,” as he memorably quips. He is able to leap steep mathematical hurdles in a single bound and hack any predicament with his dazzlingly clever skills. This MacGyver of Mars can do it all — equally handy with duct tape or decaying plutonium.

Throughout the movie, Watney, his crewmates and the scientists back home display wondrous ingenuity, insight and innovation to conquer seemingly impossible odds. But is a STEM education really all you need to attain such inspiring and extraordinary success?

Politicians and policy-makers have lately made a sport of dismissing the value of a liberal arts education. Remarks by Republican politicians, notably in a recent presidential debate, make it sound as if studying the humanities is a threat to national prosperity.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio asserted (ungrammatically), “We need more welders, less philosophers.” Ohio Governor John Kasich piled on, insisting that “philosophy doesn’t work when you run something.” It sounded like the GOP might prefer it if all philosophers immediately drank hemlock.

Watney looks like just the kind of scientist a GOP candidate could love, with plenty of brawn and chutzpah to go with the brains. He is a botanist-explorer, a man of action, not just ivory tower ideas. But this avatar of badass science is also given to philosophical musings on truth and goodness: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars,” reflects Watney. “Why bother? …Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.”

Understanding the truth of our interconnectivity as human beings, it turns out, is as critical to survival as oxygen generation on Mars.

This kind of philosophical reflection is not so surprising when you look back at the history of the world’s great botanist-explorers. Alexander von Humboldt, the famed Prussian scientist who brought the world quantitative botanical geography, was an influential proponent of Romantic philosophy. John Bartram, the daring explorer and founder of U.S. botany, was one co-founder, with Benjamin Franklin, of the American Philosophical Society.

Perhaps the greatest naturalist-explorer of all was Charles Darwin, who grew up despising rote learning at school, preferring to forage in the fields collecting minerals and insects that he did not kill out of ethical qualms. In college, he read novels and joined naturalist societies where religious and moral questions were hotly debated. His best subject was theology.

As a scientist, Darwin excelled in gathering field data, but the great insights necessary to see grand patterns in his observations required a free-ranging mind. He had a splendid pedigree for this: His grandfather Erasmus Darwin was not only influential in physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology and biology, but also a philosopher and celebrated poet.

Not one of these men would understand America’s current philosophobia and disdain for the humanities. They knew the link between the practice of science and the quest to examine big, universal questions dates back to Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE), usually regarded as not only the first physicist, but the first philosopher of the Western tradition.

To meet the competing demands of great crises or complex intellectual challenges, we actually need what developmental psychologist Howard Gardner refers to as “multiple intelligences.” Watney clearly needs his mathematical, technical and spatial abilities on Mars, for example, but his plight also requires a high degree of intra-and interpersonal skill, linguistic flexibility and ethical insight.

His decision-making involves more than just facts because science does not solve issues of right and wrong. The head of NASA, Teddy Sanders, played by Jeff Daniels, is often at odds with his fellow scientists because he can be short-sighted and fuzzy on ethics, focusing instead on the bottom line and the next PR cycle.

In “The Martian,” scientists toss around questions that can’t be answered by science alone. Do you believe in God? Do you try to save a single life when many may die in the effort? When is it right to disobey orders? When does moral duty trump professional commitment? Characters in the movie don’t just sit around in armchairs having arcane discussions. They apply their fundamental moral and philosophical insights to problems of profound urgency.

A chemistry lab alone, the movie shows, can’t foster all the qualities needed for the future. Progress requires people with critical minds, unhampered by prejudice and open to new ideas. To work effectively with the Chinese in bringing Watney home, the NASA scientists in “The Martian” must have knowledge of other cultures. To decide to disobey orders and rescue Watney, his crewmates must understand ethical concepts like conscientious objection and inalienable human rights, which have to be taught and cultivated.

More than ever, the movie shows that we need the kind of high-tech wizards who develop humane values. If not, science itself will lead us off course.

So how to explain the ubiquitous drumbeat for more STEM and less humanities? President Barack Obama has pledged $240 million to encourage STEM education, and both Democrats and Republicans are putting forth proposals on how to emphasize STEM over other educational paths. Many cite widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering labor force — a claim which has been widely disputed in research that shows that only one in three people trained in STEM actually have a job in those areas.

Perhaps what we really need are not more high-tech workers, but broadly educated citizens flexible enough to adapt their learning to a variety of jobs and occupations — along with policies that ensure that American jobs will be decently paid. In a Washington Post op-ed, Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, argues that society requires more scientists with a liberal arts education. “Our culture,” she warns, “has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.”

Young people limited strictly to high-tech pursuits will not have the opportunity to soar as high as these legendary innovators — or as high as Mark Watney, the botanist-explorer-philosopher of Mars.

They also won’t have the chance to make great sci-fi movies — the fruit of the collaboration, if there ever was one, between the artistic and scientific imaginations.


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