The New Statesman Essay - Why science should warm our hearts
Published 26 February 2001
I love science. It is what I have always done. I remember the warmth I nursed for weeks when, aged 13, I qualified for form Science 3A, already specialising at that tender age. I can still get the same thrill from some books and laboratories, when ideas are neat and properly decorated.
Science is not an innately arrogant pursuit. Newton said that science was for the glory of God - the God-given intellect dedicated to the glorification of God's works. We need not embrace the theological language of the 17th century, but the sentiment is precisely right. It is shared by many a modern scientist: that the true purpose of science is not to change the universe or to make it more comfortable, but to appreciate it more fully. Science has risen gloriously to the challenge: the universe that is now revealed, and the creatures within it, are infinitely more various and intricate than human beings ever conceived of without the help of science, and best of all is the realisation that so much is still to be done.
Science, in short, should be heart-warming, encapsulating precisely that love of scholarship for its own sake (or, as Newton and many a rabbi and mullah would say, for God's sake) which runs through all civilisation.
Other people don't see it like this. Science has a macho, gung-ho image. Understanding is not for its own sake, but is presented as the means to "conquest" - of the stars, of disease, of whatever. It comes across as a nuts-and-bolts pursuit: regrettably necessary, but posing various threats to the human spirit through its intemperate attacks on traditional beliefs and through its ruthless rationality. We are still locked in the battle of Dionysus v Apollo, with Apollo now cast as a blend of nerd and Strangelove. Schoolchildren turn away from science, and teachers must be bribed to take it up. For all this, scientists blame the media for their hype and general mischief (although the science correspondents are excellent); "the public" for its fecklessness and "ignorance"; and the subject itself, because it is too difficult and can properly be understood only by the officially initiated subsection of the intelligentsia.
What I want to suggest - in a spirit of friendliness - is that most of the fault lies with the scientists themselves and, in particular, with those who have striven most hard to be its advocates. Too often, they make it seem arrogant, macho, threatening, pompous but, in the end, naive: all those qualities that non-scientists say they find most repellent. Attempts to lighten it up frequently come across as clownishness - a dangerous quality to link to such obvious power. To some extent, this is just bad PR: there is no need for scientists to attack Christianity or Islam, for example. But the flaw runs deeper. It cannot be put right with a course in media training. The startling truth is that some of the most conspicuous spokespeople for science horribly misrepresent it: what it is, what it is like, what it can helpfully comment upon, and where it should be silent. They have, in fact, misconstrued the nature of their own craft.
What science is was beautifully summarised by the philosopher Karl Popper. An idea can belong to science, he said, only if it is testable. Science is thus composed of testable hypotheses. He went on to say that hypotheses can, in principle, be shown to be false, but cannot be shown unequivocally to be true: so "testable hypothesis" became "falsifiable hypothesis". Various philosophers have taken him to task for this - pointing out that it can be just as hard to falsify as to verify. But "testability" wins through.
This idea is simple but far-reaching. It suggests immediately that science is not anchored, as many perceive it to be, in subject matter: it is not just the sum of chemistry, physics and biology. Rather, it is a method, an approach, that can include the psychology and behaviour of human beings or the policies of a government. Everything is within the compass of science, provided it is testable.
From Popper's notions, too, science emerges as an innately humble pursuit. Science is not an edifice of truth, built stone by stone. It is a landscape painting, never finished: each addition, each fresh handcart and bathing goddess, changes the balance of the whole, sometimes beyond rescue so the whole must be started again. Science's perceived arrogance is doubly unfortunate: it drives people away and it misrepresents the subject. Even if we reject Popper's strict principle of falsifiability, we see that the "truths" of science, its theories, must always be both partial and provisional. Every idea, no matter how satisfying and complete it seems, is waiting to be knocked off its perch, or at least improved upon. We can be certain at any one time only that there is more to know. All suggestions in the past that such-and-such a subject has been sewn up were invariably followed by the rudest of shocks. Michelson measured the speed of light in the late 19th century and declared that physics was over but for the dotting of i's; in a decade or two came Einstein and then Planck, leading on to quantum mechanics, and then the whole universe was up for grabs, as it still is.
At any one time, it is logically impossible to know how much is not known - whether science has already lit up the universe like a football stadium, or merely laid a trail or two across the darkness. Non-scientists who fear that God's mystery has been forever compromised need have no fears; in the end, there is always mystery. Those who suggest that it is blasphemous to probe God's intentions are themselves guilty of blasphemy. God is not a conjuror, whose tricks seem tawdry when exposed. The more you see, the more wondrous it all becomes.
In short, as Newton and most of his contemporaries saw (including Galileo, who was a good Catholic), it is remarkably simple to reconcile excellent science with religion. Professor Richard Dawkins has made this very point: "If it is religious to perceive the universe with awe," he has said (although I paraphrase), "then I am religious." Much of the essence of religion is to experience first the awe, and then the sense of reverence that should follow from it. Science inspires in just this way.
Why, then, does science allow itself to be seen as the natural enemy of religion, and thus antagonise so many people for no good reason at all? Yes, there are some serious conflicts. The clash between Darwin and Genesis, for example, lies not in the details of geology, for Genesis can be seen as a good first draft, made in the virtual absence of data (or any inkling of "testable hypothesis"). The clash is as Daniel Dennett describes it in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Orthodox Christians of the 19th century argued, as John Locke had done in the 17th, that intelligent beings could not be made except by an even more intelligent Creator already in place; but natural selection shows how, in principle, life and then intelligence can emerge from simple beginnings, with no overseer at all. But religion as a whole does not rest on that one piece of theology; and in general, given that religion is innately untestable, it remains outside the purlieus of science. There can be spats, but there is no mortal conflict in which to engage.
Why, then, has Dawkins, outstanding thinker and writer that he is within his own field, gone to such lengths to brandish his atheism, and so derisorily? His attacks have not been worthy of either his own scholarship or his victims.
And why was Professor Lewis Wolpert so keen to emphasise the differences between religion and science in this year's Michael Faraday lecture (which might have made Faraday himself, a serious Christian, turn in his Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery)? Wolpert is a Fellow of the Royal Society, former chairman of its Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, a prodigal broadcaster, and thus widely perceived as an official spokes- person. In prestigious lectures, what he says matters. And he told his audience that, whereas we have an evolved propensity for religion, with an innate tendency to believe in God, the scientific way of thinking is "unnatural", the antithesis of common sense. He has written a book on this: The Unnatural Nature of Science.
That human beings do have an evolved predilection for religion seems entirely plausible, and for the reasons Wolpert presented. We need to make sense of our environment, and "sense" in this context implies a feeling for cause and effect. Many religions are rooted in the entirely forgivable idea that nothing happens unless somebody makes it happen, and on the grand scale this "somebody" must be God. Furthermore, Wolpert might have added, societies cohere better if everyone subscribes publicly to a common belief, whatever that belief may be. Each needs to know what the others think, or they cannot trust each other.
Yet on Radio 4 a few days earlier, Wolpert spoke of religion as a "delusion". We are led to infer that belief in religion in general and God in particular is delusory because it is an evolved survival strategy. This "because" is a resounding non sequitur. What we are or are not evolved to believe in tells us nothing whatever about its reality. We are evolved to perceive light, but we do not conclude that light is delusory. Some theologians, quite independently of any Darwinian gloss, have argued that God must exist because otherwise we would not believe in Him. That argument is obviously fatuous, but so is its Wolpert-style antithesis.
Is science really unnatural? One can see that even Galileo's idea that light objects fall just as quickly as heavy ones has a counter-intuitive quality, and quantum mechanics is off the scale of everyday conception. But the basic method of science as identified by Popper - make a guess and then test it - is the essence of all thinking. You do it, I do it, cats do it, even worms do it. For day-to-day purposes, there is no other way to get a feel for whatever is going on. Seen in this light, science emerges as the most natural process of all. The unnaturalness (if such it is) of science lies only in its explicitness: that it lays out problems for inspection, while our own commonsensical brains, bent on survival, draw lightning conclusions from fleeting impressions and are content with imperfection, provided it works.
Wolpert is also prone (and is far from alone in this) to emphasise the difficulty of science, and to conclude from this that it is best left to experts like, er, himself. At best, this view discourages, which is not a good thing for a teacher to do. At worst, it repels. It is an affront to democracy and, worse, to human dignity.
Science can indeed be very hard - but for many different reasons, and it is important to distinguish them. It is hard because there is so much of it, and different bits depend on other bits, so it takes a long time to get into. But then, the same is true of any subject, from music to Spanish conversation. It is esoteric - meaning you have to know the background before you can get to grips with the matter in hand. Again, this is true of everything. Much of science, such as immunology, is complicated. But so is gardening - yet it is not innately difficult. Some science, such as quantum mechanics, is truly counter-intuitive. But scientists, too, have difficulty with this: as Niels Bohr said, if you think it is easy, you haven't understood the problem. Or as a professor of physics once told me when I asked him how he pictured a nine-dimensional universe: "You don't. You just do the maths." Maths is always a problem, because the human brain is not geared to it. We are nature's wordsmiths. But some spectacularly good scientists have also been spectacularly bad mathematicians. Darwin regretted his own innumeracy. Faraday, a visionary physicist, pleaded forlornly for "plain words". There are very few Newtons around, able to invent a new form of maths (calculus, in his case) when the traditional kinds prove inadequate.
In short, scientists also have trouble with the problems in science that are really hard. Most of them, like most of us, see only as far as the geniuses allow them to see. Indeed, take away the top 20 geniuses from the past 400 years and we would still be living in the 17th century, with the clever but stilted physics of Robert Boyle and John Ray's natural history. On the other hand, once the big ideas are explained, then some of them at least - including those of biology, which impact most directly on our lives - are actually rather easy. Natural selection can be explained in five minutes (although it has taken 140 years so far to work through the connotations), and Mendel's experiments with peas, the basis of all subsequent genetics, seem so simple that we may wonder what the fuss was about. In fact, Mendel's was the simplicity of genius. But we lesser mortals can wallow in his vision, just as we do in Mozart and Picasso. We don't have to belong to a special club to take part. Wolpert's insistence on the difficulty looks very like an attempt to protect the high priesthood. But those who build walls invite graffiti.
Scientists must loosen up. It is false, for example, to suggest, as they sometimes have, that people who do not practise science have no right to comment at all, and get it wrong when they do. The corollary, that scientists can be relied upon to get it right, is equally false. To be sure, there would be no science at all without scientists; but that does not mean that science belongs to them, any more than art belongs to artists, or politics to politicians. Science's greatest quality is that it does not rely upon authority, at least in principle. Its ideas are explicit, laid out for universal scrutiny. Only religion is arcane, and can make a virtue of this. To insist on the specialness of scientists, and to appeal to their authority, is to adopt the methods of religion at its most pristine, where all ideas must be filtered through the chosen few. If everyone comments on science, then many silly things will be said. But that is what it means for a subject truly to be part of culture.
When they are drawn into public debate, scientists, like all of us, should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Their presentations throughout the debates on BSE and GMOs have, on the whole, been woeful. We have been treated again and again to the stock phrase: "There is no evidence that . . ." I have never heard anyone add: "But absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." Without that codicil, we do not have the whole truth. I did not here even one scientist explain in a public place why they took exception to the claim by the Aberdeen-based biologist Dr Arpad Pusztai that genetically modified potatoes had strange effects on rats. They had plenty of airtime, but they used it to complain that Pusztai had spoken to the press before apprising his peers. This was a fair complaint. But what really matters? People's well-being and enlightenment, or the dignity of scientists? When scientists ask me how to talk to the public, I ask them: "Have you ever tried behaving like a human being? Would you palm your Granny off with an unqualified, 'There is no evidence that . . .'?" It is not media-training that is needed, but a sense of citizenship.
Science needs a new image. Its Apollonic rationality is wonderful at its best, clear and pure. Beware, though, what has lately been called "the rationalistic fallacy". That it is rational does not make it right, or good, or necessarily better than some impassioned, if badly articulated, instinct. Besides, science has a romantic face, too. It is methodical, but it does not simply grind to its conclusions. Creativity matters at least as much as in the arts: huge leaps of imagination that come from nowhere. British students of English learn about Blake's antipathy to science and Thomas Gradgrind's obsession with "facts" ("A horse, Sir: a graminivorous quadruped"), but many English artists were inspired by science and technology: Turner, Ruskin, George Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Early 19th-century Germany gave us the buttoned-down end of modern biology, from cell theory through genetics (Mendel was German-speaking) to biochemistry. For much of that time, however, it was steeped in the literally "romantic" notions of Naturphilosophie and of vitalism, and in its turn the science inspired German Romanticism. All this seems to get written out of the act.
All in all, we need much more than committees and professors for the public understanding of science, lectures de haute en bas. We need a different kind of science education. Science should not be taught simply as an apprenticeship - which, more often than not, remains the case - but as a significant slice of cultural history and a way of looking at the world.
Colin Tudge's latest book, In Mendel's Footnotes: genes and genetics from the 19th century to the 22nd, is now available from Jonathan Cape (£18.99)