1 February 2013

Broke off relations in a curse

Self-educated WILLIAM BLAKE
Who threw his spectre in the lake,
Broke off relations in a curse
With the Newtonian Universe.
“New Year Letter" (1940), W H Auden

I am saddened rather than surprised when I come across anti-scientism from British journalists, even on two successive days. The Daily Telegraph on 26 January included its weekly review section containing TV listings (What to Watch) for the week ahead. Its media correspondent, Neil Midgley, previewed the first part of Professor Brian Cox’s new series Wonders of Life on 27 January:
Prepare for flashbacks to O-level physics and chemistry in Professor Brian Cox’s new science series about life and the laws of the universe. Turning gravitational potential into kinetic energy, and the basics of acid, alkali and pH, are reassuringly familiar. But things get murkier when milk bottles full of acid arrive to create a fuel cell. Soon Cox is taking “proton gradients” for granted as the way living creatures harness energy.  
… But the science lacks clout, with Cox’s script littered with “it is thought that” and “may have” when he talks about the undersea origins of life on Earth. There’s no explanation of how those oceanic base elements came to form spectacularly complex DNA, or what mankind’s common ancestor with chickens actually looked like. Cox clearly has no truck with religious explanations of life’s origins – but his response won’t trouble the devout too much, either.
Life on Earth, flat or otherwise, didn’t start with mammalian DNA of course.  Anyone with a creationist inclination may find next week’s episode in which Cox addresses the evolution of the eye even more indigestible. On 28 January in The Times (£), Kevin Maher came out with a defence of homeopathy, I’d rather be ‘cured’ by a placebo than rely on science and remain ill. Maher was irritated that Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, had informed the Commons Science and Technology Committee that homeopathy was rubbish and that homeopathic pills themselves were no more effective than a placebo.
… there’s something in the familiar surety of her rejection that niggles. It’s the same dismissive stance of the self-appointed champions of reason who are forever on the lookout for so-called bad science and keen to beat us all into submission with the rationality stick. I’m thinking here mostly of Richard Dawkins …  
… what’s wrong with the placebo effect? Hell, if I’ve got the choice of being cured by the best New Age placebo effect or remaining ill in the world of Dawkins and supercomputers, I’ll take a sugary meaningless placebo pill any day.  
… isn’t this blind faith in the teachings of the medical-industrial complex, not to mention the attendant appetite for the products of multinational pharmaceutical companies, kind of limiting? Isn’t it just a bit, well, ignorant? What did Einstein say? “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” I’m pretty sure that he means you too, science.
Are there parallels between attitudes like these towards science in general, and towards climate change in particular, frequently expressed in the British media and the hostility encountered in the same places towards the EU? An explanation for both might lie in an article by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on 29 January, Another Country - The way we are governed is inexplicable – until you understand the upbringing of the elite.
I was born [in 1963] into the third tier of the dominant class: those without land or capital, but with salaries high enough to send their children to private schools. My preparatory school, which I attended from the age of eight, was a hard place, still Victorian in tone.  
… But it was also strangely lost. A few decades earlier, the role of such schools was clear: they broke boys’ attachment to their families and re-attached them to the institutions – the colonial service, the government, the armed forces – through which the British ruling class projected its power. … By the time I was eight those institutions had either collapsed (in the case of colonial service), fallen into other hands (government), or were no longer a primary means by which British power was asserted (the armed forces). 
… The history we were taught revolved around topics such as Gordon of Khartoum, Stanley and Livingstone and the Black Hole of Calcutta. In geography, the maps still showed much of the globe coloured red. … The world, when we were released into it, was unrecognisable. It bore no relationship to our learning or experience. The result was cognitive dissonance: a highly uncomfortable state from which human beings will do almost anything to escape. There were two principal means. One – the more painful – was to question everything you held to be true. … The other, as US Republicans did during the Bush presidency, is to create your own reality. If the world does not fit your worldview, you either shore up your worldview with selectivity and denial, or (if you have power) you try to bend the world to fit the shape it takes in your mind. Much of the effort of conservative columnists and editors and of certain politicians and historians appears to be devoted to these tasks.
Monbiot goes on to argue that the current Coalition government “can blithely engage in the wholesale transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, … truncate[s] the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country, … commit[s] troops to ever more pointless post-colonial wars” because:
Our own ruling caste, schooled separately, brought up to believe in justifying fairytales, lives in a world of its own, from which it can project power without understanding or even noticing the consequences.
It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to extend Monbiot’s explanation for the economic policy of our current elite, so few of whom ever had any significant STEM education, to its distaste for science. Again, some aspects of foreign policy, particularly the vehemently anti-EU attitudes of some politicians might stem from their living in a world of their own, a world created in their schooldays.

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