Science is for everyone, whatever they try to tell you

Scientific high priests who say their knowledge is not for the rest of us are wrong, says Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
Something strange has happened to British popular culture over the past 10 years. For a nation of Luddites who once prided themselves on their scientific philistinism, the British are suddenly finding science sexy.

Witness the success of this year's National Science Week, ending tomorrow, which has staged more than 3,000 events ranging from conventional lectures and meetings through debates on science and religion, to the setting up of a 15ft high model of DNA on the main concourse of Euston station in London. This is only the second such event, but already the concept of a nationwide celebration of science has attracted envious attention from abroad.

National Science Week is not an isolated phenomenon. It has been preceded by an extraordinary demand for popular science books over the past decade. The outstanding example is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which appears to have outsold most non-fiction books other than the Bible. It has been followed by a succession of other populist works with such titles as The Mind of God.

Hawking's celebrated final sentence, arguing that through the study of quantum mechanics and cosmology "we shall know the mind of God", resonated deeply. Perhaps it is not surprising in these secular times that people should turn to science as a substitute for religion. But it is striking that so many authors have sought to popularise science as a spiritual surrogate, removing it from the sphere of everyday life at a time when the impact of science on society has never been greater.

Two powerfully polemical tracts have recently argued that this detachment is intrinsic to the very nature of science. In his new book The Trouble with Science, Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at Liverpool University, argues that biological evolution has not equipped us to think scientifically. The blind watchmaker of evolution has "designed" us to be social animals, so that we are good at assessing whether other people are telling us the truth or not (because truth-telling is the foundation of social life), but we are lousy at logical thinking and at the scientific assessment of evidence. For Professor Dunbar, science appears as some sort of Eleusinian mystery in which only the priesthood - the scientists whose innate deficiencies have been overcome by their long, hard training - can fully participate, while the uninitiated must make do with simple tracts.

This does not stop the priesthood evangelising the laity, but the assumption that only scientists can understand what scientists do conveniently removes the whole enterprise from scrutiny or control by outsiders. Dunbar follows Lewis Wolpert's earlier polemic, The Unnatural Nature of Science, in pouring scorn and contempt on sociologists and philosophers of science who have had the temerity to suggest that science is a human activity conducted much like any other. How unwelcome for them is the work of people such as the French anthropologist Bruno Latour, who instead of doing his fieldwork on warring tribes in remote Borneo, turned his attention to that more exotic species of humanity, scientists at the laboratory bench.

Latour defrocked the priesthood, finding that scientists are anything but the disinterested searchers after truth that the propagandists would have us believe. Rather, they use precisely those evaluative social skills which Professor Dunbar dismisses as "unscientific" in assessing just whose experimental evidence to believe. Furthermore, as Latour argued in the annual Schrdinger lecture at Imperial College, London, last week, scientists have been intimately involved in serving society and the state since the time of Archimedes - who, after all, approached King Hiero of Syracuse for state funding for his researches.

Yet Professor Wolpert, now the chairman of the Royal Society's Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, is desperate to absolve science of any responsibility to society. Even in so powerful and intimate a matter as modern genetics, he writes: "These are not issues for the scientist but for the public at large. Even for the introduction of genes into human cells, it is not for the scientist or the doctors to decide on the wisdom or otherwise of such procedures."

There is another tradition. During the 1930s, an "invisible college" of left-wing scientists grew up in Britain, numbering some of the greatest biologists and physicists of the first half of the century: Julian Huxley, JBS Haldane, JD Bernal, Patrick Blackett and Lancelot Hogben.

Bernal and the others were committed to a view that science was an economic and social - perhaps even a proletarian - activity, and that its proper role was not to be detached but to engage with the issues of society and to serve the masses. The titles of their books are in eloquent contrast to today's popular science: The Social Function of Science; Science in History; Science and the Citizen and Mathematics for the Million.

This group set out deliberately to demystify science. Hogben argued that geometry, for example, was not some esoteric creation of the leisured classes of classical Greece, but a practical invention by the Egyptians for the purposes of levying taxes. The Nile's annual floods obliterated the fields' boundaries: geometry was used to remeasure the areas upon which taxes were based. Far from science being unnatural or troublesome, Hogben presented "the history of mathematics as a mirror of civilisation, interlocking with man's common culture, his inventions, his economic arrangements [and] his religious beliefs."

Ultimately, the scientists then and now may be reflecting a difference in the temper of the times. Hogben and his colleagues were boundless optimists: they believed that organised scientific research coupled with rational social planning would bring "leisure for all and poverty for none". Such faith in a better future is no longer held, and the tendency to view science as somehow otherworldly is a natural consequence.

Science is one of the pinnacles of our civilisation's achievement. There is a unity and simplicity to the scientific view of the world that is profoundly beautiful. The holistic insight, for example, that there is an intimate connection between an apple falling from a tree in an English country garden and the clusters of galaxies at the uttermost reaches of the universe, is morepsychologically satisfying than anything from conventional religion or New Age mysticism. Scientists are right to stand up and proclaim that what they do is special; they are wrong only to claim exclusive legitimacy.

Science is also the powerhouse of our everyday life. We are surrounded by the gewgaws of technology: millions who could never have done so in person can now listen on CD to Beethoven played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, and millions more can watch Neighbours or play with Sonic the Hedgehog.

We need a scientific background to understand and control not the natural but our social world. For both cultural and practical reasons therefore, the reawakened British interest in science and the Government's initiative in setting up a National Science Week are to be welcomed unreservedly. Let us hope that this also marks the end of pessimism and the reawakening of a healthy optimism.