ONE blogs – JAMES W WOOD – the ISM schism: or, SCIENCE AND COMMUNICATION

The recent entry by my ONE colleague Stephen Thompson on science and mysticism came at a time when, coincidentally, I’d just delivered a talk at the University of Wales on how scientists should communicate with the public.

The kernel of my argument went like this. In medieval times, the church said mass in Latin. It had done this for centuries, and could see no reason to change. But as the “vulgar” (the word is a poem itself, describing how uneducated people were seen by the church) masses became richer and more powerful, they began to long to hear the word of God in their own languages.

So it was that in this country, brave men such as William Tyndale fought to have the bible translated into English, just as others were translating it into other European languages in the second half of the fourteenth century. The church, aghast at what it saw as an attack on its power and mystique, excommunicated the translators, sought warrants for their arrest and persecuted them throughout Europe. The whole process culminated in the reformation, the schism between the Anglican and Catholic churches and, eventually, the separation of church and state in the nineteenth century in this country and elsewhere.

The analogy with science isn’t perfect, but consider this: today, technology prevades every aspect of our lives. Three hundred years after the enlightenment, science reigns supreme. So much so, in fact, that in another space I will argue that its powers are already beginning to fade, to be replaced by a much more frightening credulous nihilism.

But back to science. Despite its tremendous power and pervasive influence, how many of us who are not scientists can honestly claim to have any understanding of (for instance) mobile phone technology? Your answer may very well be – almost no-one, and who cares?

And my response to that answer would be – everyone should care. Everyone should care how science works because there’s a danger — one we are fast seeing become a reality– that populations are being manipulated by those who seek to pervert scientific truth.

For instance, I might read a newspaper and have no understanding of environmental science. But that newspaper might tell me that hundreds of tonnes of recycling waste are being thrown onto scrapheaps. Because I lack the necessary knowledge, I can only choose to believe or disbelieve the story, rather than applying scrutiny to that story’s conclusions.

And patronising TV shows with lots of graphics, music and reconstructions aren’t going to help. Nor are programmes that tell children “science can be fun”. What’s needed is a return to academic rigour, and a return to mutual respect between the arts and sciences. More than anything else, we need to teach our children how to think properly, something our education system seems to have thrown out the window decades ago.

For in the final analysis, it is this inability to think clearly which has allowed demagogery to flourish in politics and the media today. “Rent-a-gob” experts who can turn their hands to everything from neuroscience to wine-making fulminating from televisual pulpits about any subject you care to mention, disseminating misinformation to a compliant populace which either can’t think for itself, or has long since lost interest in so doing.

In reiterating John Calder’s call for moral renewal, I would add that this kind of moral renewal is impossible without the aspiration for high educational standards. The kind of standards that mean some will fail, and not everyone can be “empowered” to do “whatever you want to do, man.” The alternative is that we continue to be hoodwinked by unscrupulous operators who seek to pervert scientific facts for their own ends, usually egotistical self-aggrandisement or financial gain or both.