You scratch my head...

THE TROUBLE WITH SCIENCE by Robin Dunbar, Faber £14.99
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The Independent Culture
IF you want to be sure of a place at university in Britain, you should apply for a science rather than an arts course. Our government wants more trained scientists and has created the departments to teach them. The only flaw in the plan is the lack of customers. Most school- leavers want to study humanities or languages. The competition for places in these areas is fierce. You need roughly three Bs at A-level to read English. By contrast, you can walk into most Physics department with two Cs and a D.

This is one symptom of a general antipathy to science which runs deep through our culture. We live in a society where many people are proud to boast of the depth of their innumeracy. Robin Dunbar thinks that this attitude could be our undoing. He argues that we owe the benefits of the modern world to our scientific heritage, and by turning against it we risk the return of pestilence and famine. The Trouble with Science fights science's corner against its contemporary enemies - postmodernism, relativism, religious fundamentalism and downright ignorance.

Dunbar is surely right to advocate a wider understanding of science. But he is right for the wrong reasons. The danger is not, as he suggests, that science may fade away for lack of scientists. There is no real evidence of a scientific recruitment crisis. The real reason for widening the understanding of science is to keep the scientists under control.

Not everything we are told by people in white coats is true. Scientific communities often have their own reasons for presenting a united front on some policy or theory, even when the evidence is inconclusive. Yet the issues on which they pronounce can be of fundamental social significance, such as global warming, or the basis of human intelligence. If we are to keep control of our lives we need to make informed judgements on the stories the scientists are trying to sell us.

The Trouble with Science has little to say about the difference between good science and dodgy science. Dunbar's own speciality is the evolution of the mind, and most of his book is an amiable discourse on the extent to which different species and societies approximate to the scientific way of thought. The book also offers a number of sensible suggestions for improving science education. Dunbar adheres closely to the principle that any mathematics will frighten the readers. There is only one equation in the book, which unfor-tunately displays a decidedly shaky grasp of the principles of probability.

Dunbar is at his best in reporting the latest theories from his own area. He explains how most experts now think that the catalyst for the development of human intelligence was the intensity of early hominid social life. We have big brains so we can gossip. Our evolutionary history placed a high premium on the ability to keep track of complex networks of shifting social alliances. Related questions discussed by Dunbar include the ability of infants and apes to formulate "theories of mind" ascribing intentions to other beings, and the evolutionary advantages of "tit-for-tat" strategies (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours).

These intriguing theories point to an important new conception of human nature. They are just the kind of science that every educated person ought to know about. However, this is not because they are well-established axioms, but just the opposite. Though you could not tell from Dunbar's treatment, the evidence for these ideas is extremely fragmentary, and it is far too early to be sure of their worth. Yet you can be certain that there will soon be lots more scientists telling us that they have finally unlocked the secret to the human mind. The best reason for educating the public to appreciate science is so that they will know when to take it with a healthy dose of salt.