Mugged by the science mafia
Mugged by the science mafia
Sunday Times, November 30, 2003
When Bryan Appleyard questioned science's claims to omniscience, the establishment's attack dogs came out to get him.
I once uncovered a conspiracy. I wasn't looking for it and I hadn't previously known it existed. But it was there all right. It still is.
This conspiracy consists of a group of scientists. It is fired by the ideology of scientism - the belief in the omnicompetence of science. Most of the time, like Al-Qaeda, it blends in with the population. But when threatened it coalesces into offensive groups that emerge from colleges and labs to crush the enemy.
In 1992 I was the enemy because I had published a book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. It dared to point out what seemed to me to be staggeringly obvious - that science is not necessarily beneficial to mankind and scientism is plainly wrong.
Coincidentally Adam Curtis, a BBC producer, was also an enemy. His television series Pandora's Box had made similar points. Pale and shaking, we met for lunch. Both of us had thought that science was a plural and diverse realm - and had been shaken to find out how wrong we were.
"I was really shocked," says Curtis today, "by the way scientists could not see how their ideas and methods were being used in inappropriate political areas. They said it wasn't science, but that wasn't the point. It was an impasse."
Al-Scientism is a formidable fighting force. Its primary weapons are scorn and distortion. At a debate on my book at London University the biologist Lewis Wolpert, one of the faction's most brutal operatives, launched an extraordinary personal assault. My side - Fay Weldon and me - lost that debate by about 999 votes to one. Later I found that a science professor had given free tickets to his students so they could vote against me.
At a debate in Oxford the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, now head of the Medical Research Council, didn't know I was present and misquoted and misrepresented me in a most bizarre manner. Later, when he realised I was there, he apologised and invited me to dinner.
Wolpert and Steve Jones, the geneticist, also confronted me in a television studio. They were both completely irrational - Wolpert said I wasn't qualified to discuss science; apparently nobody was except scientists. Neither seemed to have read my book. And there was AlScientism's most crazed ideologue, the famous Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins. Wolpert introduced me to this strange man. "Hello," I said. "I despise you," he said. And that's all he said.
I was said to be a covert agent of the Tory government, also an underground Christian fundamentalist. For three weeks I was trashed in newspaper features. Later I was to be attacked through misquotation and even misspelling in books written by very distinguished scientists indeed. One, the physicist Steven Weinberg, was a Nobel laureate. Stephen Hawking said I was "a failed intellectual" - an odd charge since I didn't know there were exams.
At least the astronomer and writer Carl Sagan gave me a fair hearing. His book Pale Blue Dot contained a long and honest discussion of mine. But then he was in charge of the script of the 1997 sci-fi film Contact and put my arguments and almost my words in the mouth of Jodie Foster's anti-scientistic lover. I didn't see a dime in royalties.
But since the publication of the book, Al-Scientism has been on the run. During the 1990s we were repeatedly confronted by the ambivalence of science's promise. Blakemore, for example, redeemed himself completely by dissenting from the apparent scientific consensus and pointing out government lies about BSE.
"Everything was tainted by political considerations," he says now. "People had to realise that apparently independent forces are not independent."
Advances in genetics, meanwhile, made it clear that the judgment and control of science by lay people was an urgent necessity. That last sentence will send members of Al-Scientism into paroxysms of rage. To the rest of us, it's just common sense. Furthermore, the threat of chemical or biological terrorism and the revelation of the scale of the illegal Soviet bio-weapons programme showed that science cannot make people good and can extend their capacity for evil.
Nevertheless, such developments have changed the climate. The scientism that was on the march in 1992 - led by Hawking and Richard Dawkins - has had to tone down its rhetoric. Books and articles, meanwhile, have been displaying a healthier scepticism about scientists' claims and the benefits of science. One recent book by Susan Greenfield, a brain scientist, president of the Royal Institution and ex-wife of Atkins, came close to endorsing some elements of Understanding the Present.
But, like the IRA, Al-Scientism has not gone away. I'm friends now with Wolpert and Blakemore, but they're still ready to take up arms when the call comes. It is a dangerous folly that sometimes afflicts our species. Lenin was a sufferer, as were Mao and Hitler. The first two thought they had a pan-explanatory science of history that justified their actions; in Hitler's case, it was biology. In less virulent forms it is still present in the use of the word "scientific " to persuade us that something is beyond lay assessment.
Science is, in fact, a value-free investigation of the material world. As Blakemore points out, it must at least have faith in its own power to explain everything and in the "trail of orthodoxy" created by the scientific tradition. Without that, all experiments would be shots in the dark.
But what Blakemore does not say is that as soon as the scientist steps away from the lab bench, he is immersed in values whether he likes it or not. The real world is not an aspect of scientific orthodoxy. Indeed, that orthodoxy only works through elaborate and partial distillations of reality. Scientists are, therefore, no more qualified to impose or advocate general truths than anybody else. On scientific matters, they are less qualified since they so obviously have a vested interest.
There are two keys points. Firstly, science's belief in the ultimate explicability of reality is a faith. It is a highly effective one and may well be true, but we have now no way of knowing. Secondly, most science, most of the time, is provisional. It offers possible versions of possible truths; "scientific" means not "definitely" but "maybe".
About all the things we regard as most important - love, life, art, imagination, peace, tolerance - science can say nothing of value. When we let it into those areas, the results are usually involve millions of corpses. Some may still dream of a scientific utopia, but it can never happen. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, even when all the questions posed by science have been answered, the problems of human life will remain untouched.
Understanding the Present by Bryan Appleyard has been republished by IB Tauris at £9.99