Why are the British so suspicious of science and scientists? And why does the image of the scientist as mad boffin-inventor still persist? As Francis Spufford, author of The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin put it: "Every country has an iconic sense of what its scientists are like, and ours is stuck firmly in the past."
The genesis of his book was a programme he made about robots. "I noticed that all the scientists I met had very ordinary houses, but every one contained a spectacular piece of DIY. One man had built an elaborate aerial on his roof, just to get a better TV picture. Another decided his washing line was inefficient, and built two pylons with rachets and sprockets, to get his washing into the flow of air above his house, where it would dry twice as fast. He had no sense of humour about what he was doing."
Spufford wanted to find out what happened to that legacy of wild-haired, bouncing-bomb eccentricity. "It's migrated. The same kind of local skills have moved into the science behind mobile phones and computer games."Meanwhile the study of evolutionary biology has taken over the mantle of religion. "You go there to ask deep, un-obvious stuff about human beings in the same way that, 100 years ago, you might have gone to Cardinal Newman."
Francis Wheen, author of How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, approached the distrust of science as part of "a ganging-up on the Enlightenment spirit by raving technophobes", pre-modernists and neo-Luddites who dream of a Garden of Eden.
"If the Pope says the sun revolves around the earth, and you think it doesn't, you should be free to point this out. But now you have to say, 'We mustn't be judgmental, they're only theories, there's a lot to be said on both sides.' You have to pretend that theories of the creation of the universe are equally balanced between fossil history and the Book of Genesis."
Both were dismayed by the number of Americans who believe the earth was created in the past 5,000 years - and by George Bush's sympathy with creationism. Wheen saw evidence of religiosity here too. "When Tony Blair said his priorities were education, education and education, what he really meant was more faith schools. He said that a more diverse society will produce a better school system, without distinguishing between swirling hogwash and objective truth."
Spufford traced public alarm about progress back to Mary Shelley. "Frankenstein was a work of the panicking imagination at the perceived uncontrollability of science. It was shortly after Galvani discovered that electric charges could make frogs' legs kick.
"From that to a reanimated corpse, the whole process rushed through her mind. I think a decreasing number of people understand the science of the world we're in. While I was writing the book, I found out how mobile phones work. I know that people's fear that they will fry the brains of their children are completely groundless, but people are still afraid."
However, Wheen thought he understood what drove people towards new-age remedies. "When you're baffled by the laws of technology, when you take your computer back to the shop because it's gone wrong and you're told it's obsolete, when you find that everything solid melts into air, that's when you grab any bit of passing flotsam, and the chances are it'll turn out to be Carole Caplin or Jonathan Cainer's astrological predictions," he said.Reuse content