Not quite as mad as we are

The stereotype of the deranged scientist is unfair. Writers can be just as irresponsible, says Fay Weldon
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The Independent Online
WHY DOES science get such a bad press? Is it the fault of literature and the arts? Scientists, complain the scientists, are rarely heroes in novels and plays and films. There are exceptions but, for the most part, scientists are presented as irresponsible and destructive. The myth of the mad scientist shambles towards us out of the fictional past in the form of Frankenstein's monster, to meet up in the present with wild-eyed Dickie Attenborough, disastrously meddling with God's creation in Spielberg's version of Crichton's Jurassic Park. The myth suggests that, if Daedalus flies, Daedalus will fall. And fall on top of others, too, causing a lot of damage.

The myth of the mad scientist is oppressive to us, the scientists claim. It creates an atmosphere of distrust, it makes progress difficult. How is science to get its funding, ask the scientists, if the writers keep presenting us as monsters? How are we to take our great leap forward in bio-engineering if the public sees us as fanatics, ruthless in pursuit of knowledge, power and patents? How can we convince the House of Commons select committee on science and technology of our good intentions? Will the purse be provided, will the laws permit?

The myth is not just bad for business and personally offensive, say the scientists, but dangerous in a world where the superstitions of the New Age and the strictures of political correctness combine to form a powerful lobby in favour of ignorance and stubborn stupidity, where the voice of reason is silenced and the work of science stultified. Things have come to a pretty pass when the public takes astrology seriously, when "therapy" is preferred to medicine and when the exclusion of "sensitive" factors such as race, class and IQ make much public debate meaningless. Is this really the road down which we want to go? Down which the writers are driving us?

The writer's defence is that the myth of the mad scientist has rooted and flourished, as myths will, in the fertile soil of reality. Einstein, with his starey eyes, and fly-away hair, the genius who failed maths at school, has become its visual archetype. Stephen Hawking's disembodied voice, pure thought emanating from a box, undiscovering and rediscovering God at the bottom of a black hole, reinforces the idea of how a scientist sounds. Doesn't take a writer to do it.

Five years back I wrote a novel, The Cloning of Joanna May, in which I made a fictional stab into the nature/nurture debate. If you made it all up (as poor Cyril Burt was accused of doing anyway in his studies of identical twins) how would it come out? Roughly 60/40 in favour of nature, as it transpired - not far out by this year's thinking and, indeed, by Cyril Burt's. The only proper piece of research I did was to go to interview a professor of Egyptology in Uppsala, Sweden, who, in conjunction with a genetic laboratory in Germany, was attempting to clone a mummy. They were aiming to freeze-dry cell nuclei; they reckoned they'd got 90 per cent of the way to a complete nucleus, when legislation stopped them. I put this in the novel and it was assumed to be science fiction. My automatic opposition to genetic technology was, also wrongly, assumed, since writers are meant to be leftish, for nurture, and against science. And it would have been hard indeed for me not to have had a mad scientist in the novel, one Karl May, who as head of Britain's newly privatised nuclear industry, jumped into a cooling pond to prove how safe it was, and died from radiation poisoning. A model not so far from life.

The public, honestly, would rather watch that triumph of technology, television, than think much about any of it at all. But this is National Science Week, organised in part by the Office of Public Service and Science (OFFPISS to some: I'm sorry) in an attempt to endear science to a yawning public, to galvanise it into some kind of debate. Even a little of the 3 per cent of budget that the giant US pharmaceutical companies must by law devote to "ethics", a sum so vast it's difficult to spend, has trickled down to this effort, by way of the Wellcome Institute. Lewis Wolpert, high priest of British Scientism, tells us that the duty of the scientist is only to "science" and that "society" must decide what to do about the fruits of scientific labour. The aim of National Science Week is to see that there is indeed some kind of society that can decide, if only in the shape of an informed, rather than a hysterical public opinion. (By "society", I assume Professor Wolpert means parliamentary committees and so forth, not the will of the hanging, flogging, castrating, chop- off-the-hands-of-mad-scientists and shoot-the-abortionist majority.)

The scientists, however, in their new need to be liked, their search for a sound bite to get the funds flowing, get themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. "We've discovered the gene for criminality!" they say, and the only response is "Huh! Define criminality!" The extraordinary endeavour, the stunning creative energy, the sheer ingenuity which has gone into the detection of a gene that does appear to have some relation to excessive male aggression is overlooked, dismissed. "We think we can improve not just the lot of humanity but the human breeding stock itself" is met with a sour "Oh, yes, Hitler tried that one". The amazing ambition of the human genome project - more fantastic even than how we managed to get to walk upon the Moon - just gets shrugged and huffed at.

Scientists are not good at the subtlety of language and this puts them at a disadvantage. They also lack tact. If we can't patent the genes, say the big pharmaceutical companies, how can we pay for the research to detect the genes without affecting our enormous profits? Then they are astonished at the outcry. In January, the Association of British Insurers told the select committee into genetic testing that it, the association, had a right to automatic access to all results of genetic testing. It, too, was astonished at the outcry. When a person wants life insurance, asserted the insurers, surely it's only reasonable for us to know how long a person is going to live. If science knows the answer, and we pay for the scientific research, why should we take risks? They forgot that risk is the insurers' business, or so we thought. They forgot, too, the profound implications for all of us in knowing in advance how long we will live.

So the scientists shudder, but obey their masters, have the ideas that are waiting to be had, do the work that pays the mortgage. And demand to know why writers should feel so superior. Don't they do the same things, also ignoring the social and ethical consequences of their actions?

Scientists and writers, I think, are not so different. Both are obsessive; the scientist is eaten up by curiosity, the writer by the need to make sense of what exists. Perhaps they quarrel because they are so near, not because they are so far apart.

Scientists can level the same charges at writers as the writers level at them. I give them this for free: writers get away with murder. Like scientists, they claim to be above society: to serve Art as the scientist serves Science, regardless of society. So what if Karl Marx changes the face of the 20th century? So what if we get to the moon because President Kennedy read Arthur C Clarke? So what if Uncle Tom's Cabin results in a civil war, Margaret Thatcher reads Hayek and Friedman, our views of Africa are shaped by Rider Haggard and Conrad? So what if feminist novels destroy family life, and Grange Hill makes our schools what they are? If any attempt to control us is made, what a cry goes up: "Censorship! Political correctness! Beware!"

But times change. The writer, like the scientist, is no longer pure. He/she works and creates, ultimately, for the profit of others. The scientist has to please the funding body; the writer, increasingly, has the publisher and script editor to please, else his/her work does not see the light of day. Some leeway is still offered to idiosyncrasy and talent, as with the scientist, but both must dance to the employer's tune. The difference is that the writers, unlike the scientists, have no ethical committees, take no equivalent to the Hippocratic oath, are subject to no parliamentary commissions of inquiry, have little protection from the pressures put upon them by their employers. Perhaps for the ultimate protection of the writer, though no doubt to their short-term annoyance, such things should be.

The divide between the arts and sciences began when the alchemists were laughed out of their labs by the Enlightenment. It was admirably defined in the 1950s by the novelist and scientist C P Snow in his lectures on "the two cultures". But free market forces serve neither the scientist nor the artist. Perhaps, facing a common enemy, writers and scientists might at last be obliged to close the divide.

On 23 March, the `Independent' holds a public debate at the Institute of Education in London on `Monster Myths: are writers demonising the new genetics?' Tickets (£10) available by phoning 0171-611 8442.