By Mike Wiggett
On 7 August I wrote about the gulf between the prodigious achievements of science and often negative public attitudes towards it. Modern prosperity owes everything to science, but we don’t celebrate it: we don’t instil in our children an enthusiasm for the wonder of scientific inquiry or an understanding of the Scientific Method.
Science still wanders at the margins of popular culture. WW2 sowed the seeds of this alienation. War is always a major spur to scientific research and development. It leads to great technological advances – computers, rocketry, jet engines – and also, regrettably, to nuclear and biological weapons. And in wartime, research is conducted in conditions of utmost secrecy.
Thus the main elements of public perception of science in this era were twofold: fear (of its colossal power) and mystery. In the war movies of the 50s and 60s, the heroes were soldiers and fighter pilots; scientists were mere “boffins”, “back-room boys”, and “men in white coats”. In science, geekdom reigned, and the less the public knew about it, the better.
Not much has changed. Ordinary people remain alienated from science, no matter how familiar and cherished its products. How many of us can diagnose the faults of a car engine, are confident of not getting ripped off by the repair man? Who can understand the electronic circuit boards of a computer, or even change a light fitting?
People not only see science as difficult and daunting, they often take pride in their scientific incompetence. An arts graduate might feel embarrassed to expose ignorance of T S Eliot’s poetry in a pub quiz, but that same person will proudly aver utter hopelessness at maths. The implication is that science is only for nerds, and may be safely discounted. How desperately stupid and wrong!
Of course, most occupations require no familiarity at all with interferometric microscopy or the Higgs boson, but a basic science education offers everybody one of life’s most precious tools: the habit of evidence-based thinking, an earnest desire to see reality as it is, not merely how one would like it to be. Absence of evidence-based thought in human affairs is seriously corrosive.
An example: consider the former doctor (“former” as in “struck off”) Andrew Wakefield. In 1998 he gained wide publicity with an article in The Lancet claiming to have established a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. However, studies failed to corroborate Wakefield’s “evidence”, which later turned out to be fraudulent. Still the damage was already done: vaccination rates fell sharply, and a number of children have suffered harm or even death in consequence.
A vivid memory from this period is the BBC News headline on the General Medical Council’s conclusions: “Doctors find the vaccine safe, but we talk to a mother who disagrees.” Appalling! One can sympathize with a mother who thinks, “My son had the vaccine, my son is autistic, ergo...” but the BBC, as a responsible public broadcaster, should know that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Rejection of science in favour of mere whim is commonplace. Prince Charles has championed the cause of homeopathy, a quack “alternative” medicine proven in countless clinical trials over 175 years to be utterly ineffectual. But some people still swear by it. Fine, swear away! Only don’t lie about the curative benefits of homeopathic nostrums. The closure of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in September 2010 was a triumph for reason and the NHS budget.
A hilarious aspect of homeopathy is that, even by its own lights, it cannot work! The pseudo-scientific methodology set in place by its founder, Samuel Hahnemann, ordained that the supposedly active ingredient of a homeopathic remedy be repeatedly diluted – to the point where it is completely absent!
In the 1990s, homeopaths tried to counter this objection with the time-honoured ploy of the snake oil merchant: make it up as you go along. They enthusiastically embraced a Pythonesque notion from the French chemist, Jacques Benveniste; water memory. OK, there may not be any active ingredient, but the water in the homeopathic solution “remembers” it! OK? Benveniste even claimed laboratory evidence for his hypothesis, but nobody else could reproduce his results. Besides, if water can remember the “cure”, why doesn’t it also remember all the sewage it has ever been part of?
|Uri Geller with bent spoon|
But Geller was called out by the great illusionist and skeptic, James Randi, who said; “Hey, I can do all that stuff too, and it’s just trickery.” Geller repeatedly tried to sue Randi to shut him up, without success. Randi has since offered a $1 million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers. The offer has stood for over 20 years, with no takers.
I have not forgotten our invisible friend in the sky, but religion will keep for another day! Let me close by warmly recommending the animated movie version of Tim Minchin’s beat poem, Storm, much in tune with the theme of this blog and available on YouTube.
Mike Wiggett retired in 2005 from the mundane business of international trade credit. The foreign business travel was OK, but he now enjoys travelling for pleasure, reading, scribbling and Thinking About What To Do Next.