Sinister? Not us; UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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The Independent Culture
When I was an undergraduate, the scientists were traditionally distinguished by their anorak-wearing, pint-sinking profiles. But the worst of the science image was that it was style-free. Nowadays I'm becoming increasingly aware of an alternative, darker image.

While I was taking part recently in a series of television debates, I was struck by how strangely the public regarded scientists. The student perspective had simply been one of pity and distance - the general public, it seemed to me, could be frightened and hostile. Corny though it might appear, the prejudice does seem, in some cases, to take its cue from Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein. To create such a monster entails several essential characteristics: awesome cleverness, no "real" emotion, and ruthless ambition for power. Such a cocktail could be shaken into the simple epithet "mad", with the "mad" scientist understandably a character to be feared.

The reality is that scientists are not particularly brainier than their counterparts in any of the other professions. They can differ, perhaps, in that they have an obsession for working towards a very specific goal. Another idiosyncrasy is that they are prepared to work hours that make a mockery of the latest EU legislation, and for a nugatory salary that in turn is, to add insult to injury, often only precariously tenured. Such quirks alone, of course, might easily suggest madness. But, irrespective of sanity, many scientists I know achieve what they do through enthusiasm, bloody-mindedness and curiosity - and not a stratospheric IQ.

What about lack of emotion? Here there is a problem in confusing a discovery with the discoverer. The bedrock of science is objectivity. In order for a finding to be valid it must be repeatable and impartially accessible to different observers. The scientist therefore, is, during an actual experiment, effectively a passive enabler and not a conjurer. Just because one's character and emotions take a back seat at times when you are trying to let nature speak to you as unambiguously as possible does not mean that you have the emotions of a robot.

Another spin-off from the complaint of being emotion-free is that science itself is somehow "cold", and therefore wrong. How much more comforting to give up trying to understand - to go with an undeniable, vitalistic flow. Such resignation is arguably acceptable as a line of least intellectual resistance for those with other agendas in life, but needs to be confronted once it is used as a fey battering ram against the whole edifice of science.

Perhaps the most sinister and alarming accusation of all is that scientists are so driven by ambition and a desire for power, that they end up performing the most unspeakable acts. I was horrified when, during one discussion, a non-scientific colleague made reference to Nazi science as though it had set the norm. Evil has certainly been performed in the name of science, as it has in the name of religion, or patriotism. But scientific method itself is value-free. Scientists tend to be rather hesitant individuals, and not of the stuff for serious power games. If they hungered for taking over people and things, they would surely have gone into politics or the City.

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