What do you do with a scientist who has lost touch with the subtly of the interaction of science within human culture? Invite him to front a Horizons program apparently.
Last night I completed a viewing of the fancifully named “Science Under Attack,” fronted by the man who is the pontifical head of the scientific academy: Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Academy. Affable enough on the surface, he couldn’t wait to tell us, all glossy-eyed about his youthful awakenings to the wonders of science, such as a pyjama-clad viewing of Sputnik One, whisking across the sky.
This was the third in a series of Horizons’ programs that I watched over the past week or so. In each of these programs, articulate but ultimately unconvincing Scientists attempt to woo their audience with a potent mixture. Firstly, we are taken on a smugly edited “journey of discovery” in which the narrator and star of the show—yes, The Scientist—pretends to rediscover the basics of the science they are examining.
Then, as finale, we are treated to shows of emotional indulgence as said scientist goes gooey-eyed, weak-kneed or exuberantly vocal over the mysterious ‘wonders’ of some extraordinary aspects of the science representing the pinnacle of their journey (typically something to do with quantum mechanics). At this point they demonstrate typical signs of people experiencing the mysterium tremendium. I.e., their own religious experience of “fearful and fascinating mystery,” to quote Rudolf Otto.
In this episode, ostensibly the reason for Sir Paul’s concern is that science is under attack. Hmmmm. The victim card, played early. Very PC. Very unconvincing. In fact, each of these three Horizons programs (here, here) had a clear sub-text: Addressing the widespread public scepticism about Climate Warming.
Under the cover of scientific interest, these episodes actually expose the deep hurt that the scientific community is feeling as a result of the climate warming controversy. Hurt, however, that is entirely focussed on the fault of the ‘Other’—that’s you or me and anyone else who is not a subscriber to any one of the views representing the scientific “consensus.” Like a small child that cannot perceive its own contribution to the mess in which they stand, the only fault Scientists see is the failure of the Other to understand them. And the only Remedy they will consider is to whine away: Why doesn’t anybody understand me?
At least Sir Paul did not seek to hide this reality and made the lack of trust of the public towards science, scientists and scientific theories a central plank of his ‘exploration’. So, he wanted to interact with opposing viewpoints, listen to conflicting evidence and understand the public’s perceptions of Science and Scientists, right? Errr…no. Well, only, perhaps, in the grubby way that unpopular politicians do—when they want to know how to win back support. Science promoted this way has barely more integrity than that.
So, instead of trying to authentically investigate the reasons for the public’s perceived lack of trust, Sir Paul pursued a carefully selected set of interviewees clearly intent upon holding them up to the sort of scrutiny that he presumed would expose them as members of a lunatic fringe, extremists that would support and uphold his assumptions. (Even so, his careful choices did neither of these things—but did Sir Paul notice?)
This was no Scientist on a Journey of Encounter and Discovery, any more than the previous two episodes. This was a politician pretending to journey, pretending to discover, pretending to encounter…precisely in order to corral us towards his pre-determined conclusion: that there is no problem with Science and its Establishment, no problem with its priorities, its manners, its assumptions, its culture, its supreme self-belief, its ideology.
This, then, was not a representative of a body starting to recognise the need for a change-of-heart. No. In Sir Paul’s view, it seems that the only possible problem with Science is that it needs to communicate more effectively, to up its PR game, in order to engender a renewal of trust—not because Science or the Scientific Establishment has erred. No, heavens forfend. Rather, the problem is that us silly people have somehow got hold of, well, not so much the wrong end of the stick, as, well, a stick of our own invention…
Thus, Sir Paul sat, oh-so-patiently, so benignly, feigning openness during an interview with James Delingpole—the Telgraph journalist, an “attacker” who did so much to expose the Scientific Warmist Conspiracy in 2010; to inflict the Great Hurt scientists are now nurturing. Except that, Sir Paul wasn’t interviewing James, or trying to understand his viewpoint, he was clearly attempting to find a way to humble (or, better yet, humiliate) him on camera. What was obvious to James and the watcher, though apparently not Sir Paul, was that in practically all his interviews, he made no authentic attempt to engage with the ideas of ‘the Other.’ Instead he rattled on tellingly, not simply about “deniers,” but also of “extreme sceptics” (does he really not understand that the word extremist is now Newspeak jargon for violent militants?) Hardly an authentic effort to engender a renewal of trust in the scientific establishment’s openness towards critique.
Sadly, I would like to think in spite of its own best intentions, though really I doubt it, this program was no earnest investigation into why the Voice of Science are no longer trusted. It was, by its own admission in fact, polemic:
a passionate defence of the importance of scientific evidence and the power of experiment, and a look at what scientists themselves need to do to earn trust in controversial areas of science in the 21st century (extract from BBC program summary)
On balance, then, this kind of programming is not about addressing the real issues responsible for a latent, growing mistrust of Science and its Institutions, amongst the initiated and uninitiated alike. Rather, like something out the dark years of nu-Labour spin-machinery, it is about finding effective ways of redefining the message, to make it more palatable. It’s about Scientists trying to regain the power and influence they sense they have lost…and are losing still. Far from opening up to hear what its Stakeholders (“the people”) are really saying, however, the heart of this matter is about working out how its messages can be repackaged in order to smuggle them back into the public consciousness. How to get the public back “on message” with the postulates of Science.
I doubt it will succeed, via Sir Paul’s endeavours or otherwise. Ironically, having been eagerly complicit in setting loose the dogs of war upon the religious sphere of the divine, the Scientific Establishment is now finding that the genies of doubt, scepticism and aggressive resistance towards passive consciousness that it so readily helped out of the bottle…these genies are now turning upon Science itself.
Consequently, within the cultures of post-modernity people are beginning to reject all of the grandiose claims of Modernity, one by one. The Pontiff and the Caliph have lost their places at the head. Kings and nobles have lost theirs. Governments are endured, no longer trusted—they are still struggling to re-learn what it truly means to serve, rather than rule. Even tyrants are being overthrown like there’s no tomorrow. Now it’s the turn of Science.
Why? Because people have been awakened to the complicity of Science in the unstoppable machinery of Global Capitalism—and prior to that of Imperialism and Colonialism. Too many of today’s scientists are dwarfs standing astride the shoulders of giants that went before. Too many of them are in league with industries of their own choosing.
But above all, Science is not trusted when it seeks not to serve, but to Rule. Like those who sought after Tolkien’s Ring, seeking to grasp the key to power, via a single form of knowledge entitled to “rule them all,” then it lays claims to supremacy. When it insists that it be accountable only to its own ‘Magisterium,’ it effectively promotes its “consensus” as a voice of infallibility. When it shrilly expects to be allowed free reign to instruct politicians and industrialists in its concomitant doctrines without any interference from others with different conclusions and persuasions, then it demonstrates that is has ceased to acknowledge the validity and wisdom of people with a different worldview to its own.
The Scientific establishment is no longer trusted implicitly because its integrity has been slowly leaking away. Too often, it has allied itself to a flagrant form of “Progress” that dehumanises and obliterates cultures. Too often, its spokespeople have become accusatory and derogatory about those who threaten its supremacy. Ultimately, it has become ideological. And it is beginning to despise those who refuse to bow before its pronouncements.
In conclusion, far from being about ‘Science Under Attack’, this program was about the Scientific Establishment on the attack, with all the heavy-hitting machinery of the BBC (note: paid for by sceptical plebs) at its disposal. Looking for weak points to probe, innuendo to declare, name-calling to indulge in, name-dropping and window dressing to attend to (see the cosy, contrived NASA section of the program). Frankly, the intentional, barely concealed loftiness of this pseudo-documentary demeaned Sir Paul, the Royal Society and the journalist integrity of Horizon and the BBC even further than ever.