Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Arrogant Gods of Certainty

Scientists are arrogant, unimaginative and quite possibly insane. But luckily, AN Wilson is here to save us from the worship of science, the great superstition of our age.

He open with: the row between the Government and its scientific advisers blazes on like a forest fire.

And then proceeds to throw petrol on it.

First up is David Nutt and the uproar of self-pity and self-importance that his sacking has caused in the scientific community. But this is not just about Nutt, science itself is in the dock because what scientists say must be taken as true. The trouble with a 'scientific' argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical fact. Of course.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Wilson has no understanding of scientific methodology - randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed - you know how it goes. Or the way that, if a scientist gets something wrong, it is very often other scientists who point this out because they are the only ones who understand the mistake. Or the way that science is not a monolithic body - conservative, ignoring evidence, resistant to change, oblivious of the 'real world' and condemning anyone who dares to challenge orthodox views. That would be religion.

But he doesn't need to know any of this because he knows he is right. He is on his high horse - and from up there it's hard to see what is really happening on the ground.

So the 'scientific' argument (why the inverted commas?) is made in a laboratory, not in the real world? Well yes, scientists come from a parallel universe and have cloven hooves, for a start. They wear Star Trek T shirts to distract us. But look carefully and you will see that the crazy hair conceals tiny horns. Didn't you know that? It's a conspiracy theory! How do you make an argument in a laboratory? What kind of test tube would you need?

Wilson next objects to any suggestion that E may not be as bad as certain people in Government would like us to believe because of the devastation wrought in sink estates not only on the youngsters themselves, but on whole communities by the casual abuse of drugs.

He admits that smoking and drinking have more casualties but this does not mean it is safe to take ecstasy.

Two things. Firstly, no one is saying E is safe, just that it is not the danger to civilization that some people are making out. Perhaps some degree of rational and objective enquiry would be a good idea? Perhaps Government policy-makers might like to consider some evidence?

No. He doesn't want to know if it is less dangerous or should be re-categorized. Drugs should be presented as the Great Evil because of their effects on what he charmingly calls the murkier parts of our society. Lie to the plebs for their own good. Drugs bad. All drugs bad. Much easier than trying to educate people or to look at the underlying causes of drug and alcohol abuse among low-income groups. No Mail reader would want to hear about that.

Incidentally, I doubt if the average teenager of whatever background gives a stuff whether drugs are Class A or otherwise.

He goes on to say that what is on trial is the reputation of science. Not so much a trial as a kangaroo court presided over by Judge Wilson.

However, he does kindly allow a case for the defence: it would be folly to deny that we all owe a vast debt to scientific discoveries, made by patient, intellectually rigorous men and women over the past few centuries. Just think what we owe to developments in medicine, let alone all those technologies we now depend on, from cars to computers.

These Good Scientists presumably do not work in labs relying solely on the empirical method. Maybe they are the ones working in garden sheds or on the kitchen table using guess work.

How do you tell a Good Scientist from a Dangerous Lunatic? This is a serious point - how is the public to know? Who can understand the issues well enough to judge when science is good (useful to decent upstanding society) and when it is bad, and to inform us all? Never fear, Wilson is here. And it's not just the plebs on estates who need his wisdom.

There is an increasing presumption among many intelligent and good-hearted people that science is an absolute truth, that its methods of arriving at the truth are infallible and that scientists must be listened to at all times.

Aw, bless the poor little intelligent fools with their great big hearts cruelly deceived by wicked scientists. I presume he has a list of names and addresses to back up this claim?

To prove their wickedness and arrogance, he lists some science fails (according to him). The foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and BSE, for example. Then he brings out the big guns.

The only difference between Hitler and other governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth.

With his wonderful grasp of history, Wilson sees the same habit of mind at work in Professor Nutt and his colleagues as made those mad scientists of the 20th century think they were above the moral law which governs the rest of us mortals.

This is stoking up the forest fire big time. We've gone from scientists = arrogant fools having hissy fits when anyone disagrees with them to scientists = Nazis. Nice move, Wilson.

Just to underline the comparison, he reminds us that scientists are tampering with the origin of human life itself in so-called stem cell research. So-called?

Not only are scientists dangerous, those who dare question science are demonised for their irrationality.

Two sorts of people questions science. Scientists who are doing their job and people who don't understand science but think it should serve their own moral, religious or commercial ends.

In Wilson World, scientists hate free discussion and are often seen burning down the houses of those who disagree with them - or taking them to court for libel. In his words: cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression... it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression.

Like the free expression of those who promote bogus cancer cures or claim that vitamins alone can cure HIV/AIDS or that God made the world in six days? Or just anyone who doesn't like the facts?

Don't scientists just love playing god - meddling with nature and claiming their own omniscience. That's when they're not too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons (or whatever it is - I have a life).

He continues:

Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Ah, those scientists and their hoo-ha. How dare they slap down one brave man who dared to tell the world that MMR was a Bad Thing for all those poor little children? He had so much solid evidence after all. Oh wait, evidence is an empirical tool of the unimaginative scientists.

Then it gets a bit weird. After saying that scientists are up in arms about Nutt's sacking because they are arrogant etc etc, he talks about the way in which the scientific establishment closed ranks in order to assassinate him. Huh? This logic truly surpasseth all understanding.

He ends with a final fanning of the forest fire flames in case there are a few tiny creatures not yet burnt to a crisp.

And to everyone who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

The irony of him suggesting an experiment is not lost. Mail readers skulking on street corners trying to score. Then standing over their kids wearing white coats, clutching clip boards, stop watches and whatever else it is that scientists do in their crazy labs (while lightning crashes around them). Don't forget to have a few monkeys on hand and some unspeakable things in jars. But only after the kids have done their homework, of course.

The article matters not because one silly bugger has got the wrong end of the stick and is using it to beat his moral agenda drum (sorry about that metaphor) but because it is another blow against the public trust in science. It matters because scientists have a hard enough time without being caricatured as arrogant, unfeeling, cold-hearted, hoo-ha-ing empiricists with a god complex. It confuses morals, evidence, social factors, logic, truth, half-truths and hysteria. And it matters because more and more money is being spent on 'alternative' medicine and dietary supplements because 'it worked for me' and 'science doesn't know everything'.

We all know that scientists sometimes get things wrong, even badly wrong. But relying on a journalist to sort out good science from bad or to judge which truths the public can handle is the real danger.

He accuses scientists of being like the Spanish Inquisition, trying to destroy all opposition, but he is the one mounting a witch-hunt. Maybe it's because it's Bonfire Night tomorrow and he's looking for something to throw on the fire - a bundle of scientists would do nicely.

There is so much more to say about this article but that will do for now.


  1. More propaganda from the Daily Wail. Can you imagine such a piece being accepted by another newpaper in this country - he'd have to tart it up even for the Telegraph.

    If there is any evidence which speaks against Professor Nutt's approach, it will be discovered by a scientist, not a religious apologist with a nice byline in conservative nostaligia.

    Nice piece Tessera. Especially the bit about scientists wearing Star Trek uniforms. I just knew they did that!

  2. Tessera -

    First time reading your blog and just wanted to say I love both how and what you write.

    I'll be adding you to my blogroll.