The Checks and Balances of Science, Institutions, Power, and Control

Governments and religions should fear air pumps and electrical machines because they have the power to keep these institutions in balance. Harari’s Scientific-Empiric-Capitalistic cycle explains how each contributes to the whole, but Joseph Priestley proved that the cycle requires a set of checks and balances to maintain its purpose. Priestley accomplished this through his oxygen-discovering experiments and his explanation of its implications. Priestley explained that this materialistic discovery could be applied to the human soul and beyond, noting that science will ultimately expose the unruly behavior of religious and government institutions by undoing the structures beneath them (Steven Johnson, p. 148). A more concrete representation of this warning and the checks and balances of the Science-Empire-Capitalism cycle comes from the work of Priestley’s rival, Antoine Lavoisier. Lavoisier improved the quality and quantity of France’s gunpowder reserves, which ultimately made its way to the Continental Army in America and turned the tides of the Revolution (Johnson, p. 142-143). Again, science upsets the balance of power and control, ultimately undoing England’s monarchical stronghold in favor of a system sought by the American people.

I think that The Invention of Air sheds light on the modern relationship between science, technology, society, politics, and religion by reinforcing a new perspective in which to view it. The most striking theme of the text was Johnson’s use of energy flow to explain Priestley’s thoughts, actions, and life, and this can be used to represent several current examples of scientific or technological research along with the societal and political consequences. Climate change is an excellent modern example, as the energy flow can be viewed in terms of rise in popularity coinciding with the rise in physical carbon emissions, both spiking dramatically through the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, getting back to Priestley’s original point, science has shown that climate change will affect us somehow soon, whether society and politics decides to acknowledge it or not. Organized institutions must face the realities of their unruly actions in the face of science.

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