The science gurus

Our understanding of the natural world is filtered through fewer and fewer experts. It is a return to the Middle Ages, says Colin Tudge
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The Independent Online
When I was at university in the 1960s many of the cleverest people lay in their punts and discussed D H Lawrence while silly fellows like me poked at dead dogfish and were known as "northern anoraks". Science was infra dig. Only a few years previously C P Snow had written Two Cultures and although the bicycle-clipped FR Leavis spoke mockingly of "The Snow Age", the old bore was right. There were two, and most of the fun was in the other one.

But now, or so it's said, the mood has changed. Those who once felt that science was an affront to the human soul are beginning to perceive what some of us saw all along - that its insights enhance our appreciation of the universe, just as knowledge of harmony and form refines our response to music; which is roughly what Isaac Newton said 300 years ago when he started the whole thing off. Besides, science provides high technology, which changes society more profoundly than any government can; so democracy is mocked if no one understands it. The new mood is to be welcomed, therefore - that, and the huge consignments of cash that industry, government agencies, and the Millennium Fund are planning to disburse on the promulgation of its ideas. People like me, who earn a living writing about science, should be jumping for joy. And I would be, except that the whole exercise is being subverted, and we are plunging back, in spirit, to the Middle Ages.

For what science needs in a modern democracy is what every serious subject has long possessed - a fourth estate: a penumbra of critics and commentators, some of whom are practitioners and some of whom emphatically are not, who understand science to its roots (or are at least aware of their shortcomings) and can comment as free spirits. Much would doubtless be said in such a free-for-all that was beside the point and just plain wrong - the same is true for all commentary. If the market is truly free and the voices are varied, the good ideas should prevail in the end by natural selection.

In the 1970s, science already had the makings of an excellent fourth estate: in my own area, Graham Chedd wrote exceedingly well about molecular biology, Roger Lewin had a marvellous overview of evolution, Jon Tinker agitated brilliantly on matters environmental, and so on. They all wrote in New Scientist. Chedd, Lewin and Tinker have all gone elsewhere but there is still no shortage of talent; and nowadays there are many more places to write. But editors, publishers, controllers of broadcasting and the pending disbursers of funds, often unversed in science and unsure of their ground, are handing over the free market of information to a coterie of scientists whom they perceive to be gurus.

Symbolic of the coterie and at the heart of it stands the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, Copus, established in 1986 mainly by the Royal Society, whose current chairman is Professor Lewis Wolpert of the University of London; and two new university departments for the understanding of science, at London and Oxford.

At first sight, it seems grand that the Royal Society - the most venerable and respected of all scientific institutions - should enter the public lists. And why not, if you are an editor, get your information straight from the horse's mouth? But a moment's reflection raises doubts. For Copus does not function simply as a lobby. Increasingly it operates as a kind of Academie Francaise: overseer; guardian of the truth; a significant, direct influence on the means of communication; and an even more significant controller of funds. What gives it the right? Where is its mandate?

We have the opportunity now to begin the new renaissance and re-integrate science into the mainstream of culture; but instead we are reverting to the ancient twilight days when information was disseminated, as an exclusive right, by a priesthood. This is as antipathetic as can be conceived to the spirit of science - which, though often esoteric, is obsessively explicit and so can never be arcane; it is in principle a game that anyone can play, or at least can watch being played.

But the new gurus are not content with priesthood: they crave the whiff of martyrdom as well. They are, they say, compromising their scholarly purity, accepting the venal hand-outs of the media, only for our benefit. Professor Steve Jones of University College, London, best-known of the British gurus, likes to make clear that he is talking to us only because he can't get a grant to do serious work. So why do they think their efforts are necessary?

In 1989, Nature published a paper by John Durant, Geoffrey Evans and Geoffrey Thomas who had interviewed 2,009 Britons and concluded that we are woefully, not to say dangerously, ignorant of science. The interviewees said they were interested in science. But, say Durant and colleagues, "...some of the questions about knowledge addressed elementary but fundamental aspects of the scientific world picture, yet they defeated a majority of respondents" and "most appear not to have caught up with Copernicus and Galileo". Overall, they concluded, "if modern science is our greatest cultural achievement, then it is one of which most members of our culture are very largely ignorant."

Emergency measures were required. All scientists' hands were called to the pumps. Copus, and Durant's own appointment as Britain's first professor for the communication of science, at Imperial College, London, had obviously come in the nick of time. But in fact the Durant, Evans, Thomas paper demonstrates nothing very much at all. There is astonishingly little correspondence between the published results and the authors' accompanying litany of despair.

Most respondents - by far - got most of the 20 factual questions right: 86 per cent knew that the centre of the Earth is hot, 83.7 per cent knew that insects do not have eight legs, 76.7 per cent rejected the notion that a body-builder's children inherit his muscles.To be sure there were interesting lapses: only 46 per cent apparently knew that early humans did not share the planet with dinosaurs.

Many of the issues that caused the investigators to wring their hands are matters for discussion. Thus when interviewees were asked what they thought science was, "less than 14 per cent of respondents made any mention of theory construction or hypothesis testing". The rest were declared wrong. It is true that in 1934 Karl Popper opined that the essence of science is its amenability to test and theoretically to disprove, and this is acknowledged as one of the great philosophical insights of the 20th century. But I once asked Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese science, what he thought science was and he replied: "The ruthless mathematisation of ideas." "What about Popper?" I asked. "Pshaw," said Needham, or words to that effect. Needham was truly a guru; I would have been happy to sit at his feet. But by the Durant, Evans, Thomas test he was wrong.

In short, the notion that there is an emergency seems largely spurious; certainly unproven. And even if we were disastrously ignorant of science, it is far from clear that anyone needed scientists to emerge en masse from their labs to tell us about it, and still less to set themselves up as watchdogs. The fourth estate was working well: lack of space, not lack of talent, was the constraint. Steve Jones has said on television that he went into science writing because he saw how badly it was being done (that, and the lack of grants); but the notion that scientists get it right while professional commentators mess it up is contradicted by the facts.

Take the field of evolutionary psychology. This emerging discipline is founded on the premise that aspects of human behaviour are heavily influenced by particular genes that have been subjected to natural selection, as first posited by Charles Darwin. It is already offering insights into human behaviour that are prompting sociologists to re-think their priorities and suggesting new approaches to conditions such as autism. No one seriously engaged in the field is suggesting that our behaviour is inescapably controlled by our genes, and still less that our innate proclivities are morally justified just because they are in-built. St Paul knocked that non sequitur on the head 1,900 years ago, as did David Hume in the 18th century and G E Moore at the start of the 20th. The intent is to "know thyself". Where the investigations might lead is far from certain. That they will prove interesting and useful is clear.

On this, the gurus have been out in force: Stephen Rose, of the Open University; Stephen Jay Gould, of Harvard; Steve Jones, in his book and television series, In The Blood; and Richard Dawkins, of Oxford. Only Dawkins gets it right. Rose continues to rail against "genetic determinism", which has long since been acknowledged as a nonsense. Gould continues to imply that anyone who mentions genes and human behaviour in the same paragraph is a covert subscriber to the Ku Klux Klan. Jones, in In The Blood, conflates modern evolutionary psychology with the primitive ramblings of the 1930s when people spoke darkly and wildly of "racial intelligence", and shows in a number of technical instances that he has simply not grasped the principles. Together with Dawkins, the best introductions are by Matt Ridley, as in The Red Queen; Ridley being an ex-Oxford zoologist who has long been a full-time commentator. He confounds any notion that professional scientists should be the sole guardians of scientific truth.

I would love to see the new renaissance. Life would be richer and safer if people stopped putting "science" in a separate pigeon-hole and allowed it to seep into everyday perceptions. But we have been led down a blind alley. We need to start afresh. Editors, broadcasters and publishers must broaden their horizons; and the new establishment of science-communicators, and especially the Royal Society, should try a little introspection.

The media scientists who tell us everything we need to know

Richard Dawkins, zoologist, 55.

Post: holder of Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University.

Most significant research: "selfish genes" and "memes" - ideas which humans create and pass among themselves.

Notable for: furious atheism and imaginative metaphors explaining evolution.

Books, films, etc: The Selfish Gene (1976) offered a "gene-centred" view of the world: we exist for genes' survival. The Extended Phenotype (1982), which followed the first idea, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), explaining undirected evolution, River Out of Eden (1995), on how DNA evolves, and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), explaining evolution as a series of small steps which take you up the mountain of complexity.

Also appearing in: BBC TV's Richard Dimbleby lecture.

Briefly: powerful communicator enraged by sloppy belief in pseudoscience and religion.

Stephen Jay Gould, palaeontologist, 55.

Post: Harvard University professor, teaching geology, biology and history of science.

Most significant research: 1974 paper suggesting "punctuated equilibrium": the idea that species evolve not at a steady rate but with long stable periods interrupted by dramatic changes.

Notable for: stolid defence of evolution and literary essays and books on related topics.

Books, films, etc: Ever Since Darwin (1977), The Panda's Thumb (1980), a collection of essays pointing out (among other things) that the panda's "thumb" is not a digit at all but has developed to serve the same purpose; Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History (1996).

Also appearing in: This View of Life (video), On Evolution (CD-ROM), testimony to the US Senate that "nuclear winter" could extinguish human life.

Briefly: an American version of Richard Dawkins, with a more flowery writing style.

Stephen Hawking, physicist, 54.

Post: Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.

Most significant research: 1974 publication showing that black holes, thought to be one-way traps, actually could emit thermal radiation.

Notable for: appearance - he suffers from a rare and progressive motor neurone disease, which means he needs full-time care and a voice synthesizer. Mentally, very active: still attends conferences and gives (prepared) lectures.

Books, films, etc: A Brief History of Time (1988) aimed to explain the origin and future of the universe and its contents (including stars, black holes, et al.). An international best seller - though few people reached the last page, despite the absence of equations. Publisher has since, less successfully, produced The Illustrated Brief History of Time.

Also appearing in: BT adverts and an episode of Star Trek.

Briefly: the public's idea of "a scientist".

Steve Jones, biologist, 52.

Post: Professor of genetics, University College, London.

Most significant research: has spent past 25 years studying the genetic diversity in the snail species Cepaeanemoralis. "Abstruse and totally useless," he says.

Notable for: insistence on the importance of DNA.

Books, films, etc: BBC Reith Lecturer, 1991, on DNA. Expanded on this in The Language of the Genes (1993), explaining how DNA has its own "language" which gives rise to the immense variety of genes and variations. It won him the Science Writer of the Year prize. 1996 BBC television series In The Blood revisited this, with globetrotting instances of what this means for different races and populations.

Also appearing in: regular column in the Daily Telegraph.

Briefly: the man who knows about genetics; he's both reductionist, seeing everything as DNA, and holistic, insisting that being human "involves a lot more than a sequence of DNA bases".