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Unnatural Science

A review of Lewis Wolpert’s The Unnatural Nature of Science

(IPA Review, Vol 46, No 3, 1993)

WE must all hope that the light on the hill will some day shine down on a “clever country” — a country where science flourishes alongside a busy economy. But the imbecilities of the educational swamps at the foot of the hill do make one wonder.

What progress is likely when in Canberra a National Statement on Science implies that “there are no facts,” and that if a child’s delusions conflict with science then they should be treated with reverent pedagogical concern. How is one to obtain a political leadership capable of informed decisions about the environment, or genetic engineering, or nuclear research, when the graduates of our Faculties of Arts (the usual background of politicians) so often display a deep ignorance of science along with a malevolent hostility to all it represents?

Resentment and Indispensability

Yet this hostility is probably inevitable — as inevitable as the universal resentment of power, status, privilege and success. The very prestige and indispensability of modern science make it the target of three kinds of people. First there are those who admire it, but feel excluded, and long to join the club. Examples of this are the old-time Marxists for whom Marxism was “the science of society”; “scientologists” desperate to raise the standing of their cult; and promoters of “Aboriginal Science” who claim, in effect, that anything you can do we did already. All of these people want the prestige of science without earning it.

Then there are those who envy science, and whose effort to denigrate its success and undermine its achievement derives from a resentful longing to destroy what they cannot match. Examples of this are the “there are no facts” school of radical sociology, the “all cultures are equal” school of relativistic anthropology, and the “sociology of knowledges” (sic) people who seek to explain away the whole marvellous edifice of the last 200 years in terms of the career needs of individuals, or class interest, or favourable cultural conditions — anything at all excepting science itself.

Finally, there are those who genuinely hate science because it is the opposite of all they stand for. Here we find the romantic admirers of unspoiled nature and everything natural, a group including large numbers of bohemianized academics. However blind and ignorant they may be, one cannot say their instincts are wholly wrong. For as Lewis Wolpert points out in this sane, reasonable and good-humoured defence of science (he is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London, and as well as being the author of the book here under discussion, has several other books to his credit) science is unnatural through and through.

Commonsense will not lead you to discover the chemical properties of DNA, and carving boomerangs will not help you design supersonic wings.

“Natural thinking,” writes Wolpert, “ordinary day-to-day common sense, will never give an understanding about the nature of science. Scientific ideas are, with rare exceptions, counter-intuitive … (Furthermore) common sense is prone to error when applied to problems requiring rigorous and quantitative thinking; lay theories are highly unreliable.”

But there is really no reason to feel ashamed about this. Evolution developed our perceptions and our brains for more immediately sensible things — for the sight of falling leaves, the smell of smoke on the wind, the sound of footsteps in the night. Scientific understanding, however, “is not only unnatural”, writes Wolpert. “For most of human evolution it was also unnecessary, since, as will be seen, technology was not dependent on science.”

Technology is not science

Here the author is pointing to the common misunderstanding which equates science and technology — a misunderstanding found even in journals like New Scientist. Last May an Article from the Northern Territory reported with pride the publication of “a magnificent booklet entitled From Ochres to Eel Traps which illustrates, through a number of simple experiments, how Aboriginal science can be transferred to a Western classroom.” It is good to know the experiments are simple. I am sure that children will discover useful things about Aboriginal crafts and have lots of fun. But what they are learning is how to make fish traps — technology — not science.

The ingenuity of palaeolithic hunters and gatherers in devising snares and traps and spears and harpoons (something all our ancestors did all over the world) is something we can sincerely admire. But science is something else. Science embodies coherent and universally applicable theories about matter, process and cause, not just a craftsman’s experience of what heating and bending will do. Moreover, in Wolpert’s Chapter 2, “Technology is not Science”, various civilizations are mentioned with technologies far in advance of anything the Aborigines achieved — Ancient Mesopotamia, China, the Incas of Peru — none of which had science.

‘The technological achievement of the ancient cultures was enormous,” Wolpert writes. “But whatever process was involved it was not based on science. There is no evidence of any theorizing about the processes involved in the technology nor about the reasons why it worked.”

Despite the glories of both Romanesque and Gothic, the nearest the builders of those mighty cathedrals ever came to a scientific grasp of what they were doing was contained in “The Five Minutes Theorem”: if a structure was built and remained standing for five minutes after the supports had been removed, it was assumed it would stand forever.

In a refreshingly brisk manner, Wolpert declares that unnatural thinking began with Thales in Greece. It was he who first systematically “tried to explain the world not in terms of myths but in more concrete terms, terms that might be subject to verification.” Before Thales, typically, there was the kind of Babylonian hodgepodge in which “Marduk split the primeval water goddess Tiamat to make the sky…” After Thales, in the West, that sort of thing steadily declined. Replacing it “came a critical appreciation of the nature of explanation itself, and the requirement for logical consistency.” The stage for science was set.

Now of course this is a dreadful heresy in the eyes of the “all cultures are equal” crowd, who fiercely resist the notion that there is “little chemistry and less calculus in Tikopia or Timbuctoo.” (Behold, ye doubters, the palaeolithic fish-trap!) According to them all knowledge is “socially constructed” and the whole body of modem science might have been quite otherwise if different historical and social conditions had prevailed. Or if affirmative action had given some other culture a chance. Much of this seems to me self-serving nonsense, a “debilitating befuddlement” not worth the paper it’s printed on. Is it seriously suggested, as Wolpert asks, that “a biology not based on cells and DNA would have been possible? Would the periodic table or carbon chemistry never have emerged?” It is not enough for relativists to defiantly answer “Yes”. As the author says, major counter-examples must be provided if their argument is to be taken seriously.

The attack from the humanities

Is science beleaguered today? Perhaps it is wrong to be too alarmed about the situation overall. If movies habitually portray scientists as “unstable, anti-social Professor Branestawms avidly pursuing their theories but ignorant or careless of the consequences,” there are also creditable television science and technology programs such as Quantum, Beyond 2000 and an Open Learning chemistry course is planned. If last June’s National Statement on Science represents the Higher Lunacy of the Left in Canberra, I hope I am not being unduly complacent in feeling that wiser counsels are bound to prevail.

Yet the situation in the Arts faculties of the universities does give cause for concern. The leftism which failed in its long assault on our political institutions has had much more success with the soft targets available on campus. And its anti-scientific stance is just as destructive as ever. What we have is a radicalism which no longer believes in progress, fears that it no longer has any reason to exist, and in the name of “post-modernism” is nihilistically destroying whole areas of study. In the course of this the humanities are being fatally weakened as a positive influence in our life. In sharp contrast to this reactionary radicalism, science has no option but to interpret the past in terms of progress:

“It is precisely in this respect that science, once again, is special: for the history of science is one of progress, of increased understanding. In the last 50 years the progress, for example, in understanding biology at the molecular level has been astonishing. Science is progressive in that the truth is being approached, closer and closer, but perhaps never attained with certainty. But very close approximation can be a great achievement and is infinitely better than error or ignorance.”

Moreover, in this situation science represents one of the last places on the campus where the distinction between truth and falsehood still matters, where rationality, order and discipline still count, and where personal conduct broadly conforms to a moral code which both liberals and conservatives can approve. Liberals have always been more or less at home with science’s innovation and entrepreneurial inclinations. But this is a time when conservatives, too, must face up to the ruinous condition of many Arts Departments, and throw their weight behind the best bet for a civilized future we have. Science needs and deserves their support.

Perhaps Wolpert should be allowed the last word. He is here rebuking the sociologists for their activities, but there is a message for others too.

“By ignoring the achievements of science, by ignoring whether a theory is right or wrong, by denying progress, the sociologists have missed the core of the scientific enterprise. Science has been extraordinarily successful in describing the world and in understanding it. There is real need for sociologists to try to illuminate this unnatural process. What is required is an analysis, for example, of what institutional structures most favour scientific advance, what determines choice of science as a career, how science should best be funded, how interdisciplinary studies can be encouraged.”

Perhaps the next National Statement on Science could explore these questions. When they are answered, and appropriate policies are adopted, we might move closer to that still undiscovered bourne — the “clever country” the politicians talk about.

Posted in Science.