Science, I said (it seems like only yesterday), can’t offer us moral certainty, or indeed certainty of any sort. Those who maintain otherwise (usually Frenchmen) are engaging in a kind of cargo cult: the impenetrability of scientific jargon, along with the tremendous success of modern science in manipulating the environment, has filled these thinkers with superstitious wonder. They wish to measure and control the human character as scientists measure and control the natural world. For reasons I have already noted, it’s a false analogy.
The most radical component of the scientific attitude is humility, on which is based a long and productive tradition of criticism. Nothing stands except on its own merits. A Darwin or an Einstein can be wrong about a particular, despite the immense authority of their names.
To do science is to live in the certainty that one’s work will be criticized, corrected, and eventually superseded. When one looks back on the history of the human race, the uniqueness of such institutional humility becomes glaringly apparent. Here, in the realm of morality, I suspect, are found the roots of the equally unique success of modern science.
Yet that is not how many see the institution. Most of us aren’t scientists, or have much interest in scientific matters; we respond to science from our own nonscientific, possibly pre-scientific, perspective. Cargo cult positivism is one consequence. Postmodern loathing of science is another.
According to this piece by Ben Goldacre in the online Guardian, most mainstream media reporting on science is “often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong,” in large part because science reporters are humanities graduates, who have drunk deeply of the postmodernist brew.
Last month there was an interesting essay in the journal PLoS Medicine, about how most brand new research findings will turn out to be false (www.tinyurl.com/ceq33). It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense; and this is the perfect example of the parody hypothesis that we’ll see later. Scientists know how to read a paper. That’s what they do for a living: read papers, pick them apart, pull out what’s good and bad.
Scientists never said that tenuous small new findings were important headline news – journalists did.
Science, I said, is distinguished by its humility. Yet as reported by the MSM, science becomes a series of authority figures citing new “findings,” which often contradict one another.
The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in. . . But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists’ parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, “hard to understand”.
This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it’s exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only not as well written. We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven’t really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science. And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they’ve denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they’re angry with themselves over that.
And that is surely the heart of the matter: how we respond to science depends, almost entirely, on how we respond to the unknown.