BOOKS: Why science needs protection

Prometheus Bedevilled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture by Norman Levitt Rutgers University Press pounds 25.50

`Newton!" Griff Rhys-Jones snorts in the TV car ad. "One apple falls on his head and he thinks he's Einstein." It nicely sums up the mixture of awe and contempt with which most people view scientists. A few weeks ago the press celebrated details of Einstein's larger-than-life brain as a symbol of scientific genius. That same week a poll discovered that people were more willing to trust even the food industry than scientists for information about GM crops. This paradox in the public's perception of science lies at the heart of Prometheus Bedevilled. Ignorance about science, Norman Levitt suggests, has led to strained relations between science and society. We can't live without science, yet fear what it is doing to us: from global warming to "Frankenstein foods", the consequences of science and technology drive us to panic. There is increasing resentment at the "arrogance" of science, and a desire to cut it down to size. Such alienation, Levitt argues, is disastrous both for science and for society at large.

Levitt, a mathematician from Rutgers University, has long been a pugnacious defender of science against its critics. Five years ago, in Higher Superstition, a book he co-wrote with Paul Gross, Levitt launched a broadside against the "academic left" for having abandoned its commitment to science and reason, and embraced instead a fashionable postmodern relativism. The book became a key text in the so-called "science wars" and turned Levitt into a figure of hate among sociologists and historians of science. If anything, Levitt's view of "science studies" has become harsher still. "Academics who rail or snipe at science", he writes, "are rather like well-brought-up children who made a deliberate decision to misbehave and outrage their elders on some solemn occasion." But Prometheus Bedevilled is more than simply a critique of such academic theory. Levitt recognises that academic attacks on science are reflections of a more general unease. In his new book, therefore, Levitt takes a broader view of the relationship between science and society in an attempt to understand why science does not possess the social status it deserves.

Science, Levitt argues, is by far the best means we have invented for understanding our world. It is not simply one way of knowing the world, on a par with other forms of knowledge. It is the crowning glory of human intellectual endeavour and the only means of obtaining reliable, accurate and objective knowledge about the world around us. The privileged access to truth that science provides should ensure that it has a privileged place in society. Social institutions from schools to law courts to legislatures should prioritise scientific evidence above any other form of knowledge.

Such a view, Levitt acknowledges, inevitably creates unease and resentment. Much of this is because science is an elitist calling. By this Levitt means two things. First, that only certain individuals have the talent to become good scientists. And second, that science requires hard work, dedication and the pursuit of high standards. But, Levitt claims, we live in a society in which elitism and the pursuit of high standards are constantly denigrated in the name of democracy and pluralism. Intellectual discourse has become coarsened, high culture has prostituted itself in the name of popularity, and there is a general tendency to seek the easiest solution to any problem rather than struggling to achieve real insight. There is more than a touch here of Allan Bloom's complaints in The Closing of the American Mind. Levitt's aim, however, unlike Bloom's, is not to define a conservative agenda but to show how today's "anything goes" culture is inimical to scientific activity. "If high culture has frayed and disintegrated, if it has compounded itself inextricably with common dross", he asks, "why should not science share the same fate?"

Levitt is particularly good in dismantling the arguments of those who wish to "democratise science". There is currently a debate in America about the teaching of evolutionary science in schools. Christian fundamentalists demand that the Biblical account of Creation be taught as an equally valid theory of the origins of life. Astonishingly, many radicals support them on "democratic" grounds. What such radicals propose, Levitt points out, "is not so much the democratisation of science as the supplanting of science by a melange of viewpoints in which populist enthusiasm or even quasi- religious dogma will be anointed with the cultural authority of the `scientific'."

Levitt's is a brilliant polemic, both thought-provoking and entertaining. I am deeply sympathetic to his main arguments about the nature of scientific knowledge and to his claims for a privileged role for science. I also agree that the general "dumbing-down" of society has had a disastrous impact both on science and on perceptions of science. Yet for all the lucidity and cogency of Levitt's arguments, there remains a serious weakness in his analysis.

Levitt suggests that there is a fundamental conflict between democracy and science. Most people, he argues, are driven by habits of thoughts that are antithetical to science. "Public opinion", he writes, "seems obstinately impermeable to scientific good sense. The fit between the intellectual habits of most laymen and what is required for reliable scientific judgement is depressingly inadequate." Hence most people will never be able to understand science, and indeed will fear it because of its success. Science, therefore, needs to be "protected" from the multitude. It must be "insulated from the impulsiveness of vulgar majoritarianism and populism".

But insulating science in this fashion can only make worse disquiet about it. Levitt is wrong to suggest that people are suspicious of science because they are ignorant of it. More people have a greater understanding of science today than they did a century ago, and yet the Victorian public more willingly embraced scientific advance. That was largely because there existed then a greater optimism about the possibilities of human progress. We live today in a much more pessimistic age. This has made many people queasy about scientists "playing God", and has created a sense that the interests of scientists are different from their own. Insulating science in the way that Levitt wants can only make both problems worse.

Levitt overplays the conflict between science and democracy. It is true that, as in the debate about the teaching of evolutionary theory, scientific facts often clash with religious or other prejudices and that in these cases scientific truth should not give way to irrational dogma, however popular this might be. But one should not infer from this that there is a general conflict between science and democracy. A genuine democracy requires its citizens to have a grasp of the scientific method. A society in which mysticism or irrationality breeds widely cannot be truly democratic. That is why, far from insulating science from democracy, we should seek rather to open democracy to reason and science.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement