Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder - Richard Dawkins (2000)
Chapter 2. DRAWING ROOM OF DUKES
You may grind their souls in the self-same mill,
You may bind them, heart and brow;
But the poet will follow the rainbow still,
And his brother will follow the plow.
JOHN BOYLE O'REILLY (1844–90)
'The Rainbow's Treasure'
Breaking through the anaesthetic of familiarity is what poets do best. It is their business. But poets, too many of them and for too long, have overlooked the goldmine of inspiration offered by science. W. H. Auden, leader of his generation of poets, was flatteringly sympathetic to scientists but even he singled out their practical side, comparing scientists, to their advantage, with politicians, but missing the poetic possibilities of science itself.
The true men of action in our time, those who transform the world, are not the politicians and statesmen, but the scientists. Unfortunately poetry cannot celebrate them, because their deeds are concerned with things, not persons, and are, therefore, speechless. When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.
The Dyer's Hand, 'Poet and the City' (1963)
Ironically that is pretty much how I and many other scientists feel when in the company of poets. Indeed—and I shall return to the point—this is probably our culture's normal evaluation of the relative standings of scientists and poets, which may have been why Auden bothered to say the opposite. But why was he so definite that poetry cannot celebrate scientists and their deeds? Scientists may transform the world more effectively than politicians and statesmen, but that is not all they do, and certainly not all they could do. Scientists transform the way we think about the larger universe. They assist the imagination back to the hot birth of time and forward to the eternal cold, or, in Keats's words, to 'spring direct towards the galaxy'. Isn't the speechless universe a worthy theme? Why would a poet celebrate only persons, and not the slow grind of natural forces that made them? Darwin tried manfully, but Darwin's talents lay elsewhere than in poetry:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth and reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us ... Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
On the Origin of Species (1859)
William Blake's interests were religious and mystical but, word for word, I wish I had written the following famous quatrain and, if I had, my inspiration and meaning would have been very different.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
'Auguries of Innocence' (c. 1803)
The stanza can be read as all about science, all about standing in the moving spotlight, about taming space and time, about the very-large built from the quantum graininess of the very small, a lone flower as a miniature of all evolution. The impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism (and lesser figures to paranormal superstition, as we shall see) are precisely those that lead others of us to science. Our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same. The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not 'meant' to understand. The scientist feels the same wonder but is restless, not content; recognizes the mystery as profound, then adds, 'But we're working on it.'
Blake did not love science, even feared and despised it:
For Bacon and Newton, sheath'd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion; Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs ...
'Bacon, Newton, and Locke', Jerusalem (1804–20)
What a waste of poetic talent. And if, as fashionable commentators can be relied upon to insist, a political motive underlay his poem, it is still a waste; for politics and its preoccupations are so temporary, so trifling by comparison. It is my thesis that poets could better use the inspiration provided by science and that at the same time scientists must reach out to the constituency that I am identifying with, for want of a better word, poets.
It is not, of course, that science should be declaimed in verse. The rhyming couplets of Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, though surprisingly well regarded in their time, do not enhance the science. Nor, unless scientists happen to have the talents of a Carl Sagan, a Peter Atkins or a Loren Eiseley, should they cultivate a deliberately prose-poetic style in their expositions. Simple, sober clarity will do nicely, letting the facts and the ideas speak for themselves. The poetry is in the science.
Poets can be obscure, sometimes for good reason, and they rightly claim immunity from the obligation to explain their lines. 'Tell me Mr Eliot, how exactly does one measure out one's life with coffee spoons?' would not, to say the least, have been a good conversation opener, but a scientist, rightly, expects to be asked equivalent questions. 'In what sense can a gene be selfish?' 'What exactly flows down the River Out of Eden?' I still spell out on demand the meaning of Mount Improbable and how slowly and gradually it is climbed. Our language must strive to enlighten and explain, and if we fail to convey our meaning by one approach we should go to work on another. But, without losing lucidity, indeed with added lucidity, we need to reclaim for real science that style of awed wonder that moved mystics like Blake. Real science has a just entitlement to the tingle in the spine which, at a lower level, attracts the fans of Star Trek and Doctor Who and which, at the lowest level of all, has been lucratively hijacked by astrologers, clairvoyants and television psychics.
Hijacking by pseudo-scientists is not the only threat to our sense of wonder. Populist 'dumbing down' is another, and I shall return to it. A third is hostility from academics sophisticated in fashionable disciplines. A voguish fad sees science as only one of many cultural myths, no more true nor valid than the myths of any other culture. In the United States it is fed by justified guilt over the historical treatment of Native Americans. But the consequences can be laughable; as in the case of Kennewick Man.
Kennewick Man is a skeleton discovered in Washington State in 1996, carbon-dated to older than 9,000 years. Anthropologists were intrigued by anatomical suggestions that he might be unrelated to typical Native Americans, and therefore might represent a separate early migration across what is now the Bering Strait, or even from Iceland. They were preparing to do all-important DNA tests when the legal authorities seized the skeleton, intending to hand it over to representatives of local Indian tribes, who proposed to bury it and forbid all further study. Naturally there was widespread opposition from the scientific and archaeological community. Even if Kennewick Man is an American Indian of some kind, it is highly unlikely that his affinities lie with whichever particular tribe happens to live in the same area 9,000 years later.
Native Americans have impressive legal muscle, and 'The Ancient One' might have been handed over to the tribes, but for a bizarre twist. The Asatru Folk Assembly, a group of worshippers of the Norse gods Thor and Odin, filed an independent legal claim that Kennewick Man was actually a Viking. This Nordic sect, whose views you may follow in the Summer 1997 issue of The Runes tone, were actually allowed to hold a religious service over the bones. This upset the Yakama Indian community, whose spokesman feared that the Viking ceremony could be 'keeping Kennewick Man's spirit from finding his body'. The dispute between Indians and Norsemen could well be settled by DNA comparison, and the Norsemen are quite keen to be put to this test. Scientific study of the remains would certainly cast fascinating light on the question of when humans first arrived in America. But Indian leaders resent the very idea of studying this question, because they believe their ancestors have been in America since the creation. As Armand Minthorn, religious leader of the Umatilla tribe, put it: 'From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.'
Perhaps the best policy for the archaeologists would be to declare themselves a religion, with DNA fingerprints their sacramental totem. Facetious but, such is the climate in the United States at the end of the twentieth century, it is possibly the only recourse that would work. If you say, 'Look, here is overwhelming evidence from carbon dating, from mitochondrial DNA, and from archaeological analyses of pottery, that X is the case' you will get nowhere. But if you say, 'It is a fundamental and unquestioned belief of my culture that X is the case' you will immediately hold a judge's attention.
It will also hold the attention of many in the academic community who, in the late twentieth century, have discovered a new form of anti-scientific rhetoric, sometimes called the 'post-modern critique' of science. The most thorough whistle-blowing on this kind of thing is Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's splendid book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1994). The American anthropologist Matt Cartmill sums up the basic credo:
Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us ... There are no objective facts. All supposed facts' are contaminated with theories, and all theories are infested with moral and political doctrines ... Therefore, when some guy in a lab coat tells you that such and such is an objective fact ... he must have a political agenda up his starched white sleeve.
'Oppressed by evolution', Discover magazine (1998)
There are even a few vocal fifth columnists within science itself who hold exactly these views, and use them to waste the time of the rest of us.
Cartmill's thesis is that there is an unexpected and pernicious alliance between the know-nothing fundamentalist religious right and the sophisticated academic left. A bizarre manifestation of the alliance is their joint opposition to the theory of evolution. The opposition of the fundamentalists is obvious. That of the left is a compound of hostility to science in general, of 'respect' (weasel word of our time) for tribal creation myths, and of various political agendas. Both these strange bedfellows share a concern for 'human dignity' and take offence at treating humans as 'animals'. Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet Mcintosh make a similar point about what they call 'secular creationists' in their 1997 article 'The New Creationism' in The Nation magazine.
Purveyors of cultural relativism and the 'higher superstition' are apt to pour scorn on the search for truth. This partly stems from the conviction that truths are different in different cultures (that was the point of the Kennewick Man story) and partly from the inability of philosophers of science to agree about truth anyway. There are, of course, genuine philosophical difficulties. Is a truth just a so-far-unfalsified hypothesis? What status does truth have in the strange, uncertain world of quantum theory? Is anything ultimately true? On the other hand, no philosopher has any trouble using the language of truth when falsely accused of a crime, or when suspecting his wife of adultery. 'Is it true?' feels like a fair question, and few who ask it in their private lives would be satisfied with logic-chopping sophistry in response. Quantum thought experimenters may not know in what sense it is 'true' that Schrodinger's cat is dead. But everybody knows what is true about the statement that my childhood cat Jane is dead. And there are lots of scientific truths where what we claim is only that they are true in the same everyday sense. If I tell you that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor, you may doubt the truth of my statement and search (in vain) for evidence that it is false. But we both know what it would mean for it to be true, and what it would mean for it to be false. It is in the same category as 'Is it true that you were in Oxford on the night of the crime?', not in the same difficult category as 'Is it true that a quantum has position?' Yes, there are philosophical difficulties about truth, but we can get a long way before we have to worry about them. Premature erection of alleged philosophical problems is sometimes a smokescreen for mischief.
'Dumbing down' is a very different kind of threat to scientific sensibility. The 'Public Understanding of Science' movement, provoked in America by the Soviet Union's triumphant entry into the space race and driven today, at least in Britain, by public alarm over a decline in applications for science places at universities, is going demotic. 'Science Weeks' and 'Science Fortnights' betray an anxiety among scientists to be loved. Funny hats and larky voices proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun. Whacky 'personalities' perform explosions and funky tricks. I recently attended a briefing session where scientists were urged to put on events in shopping malls designed to lure people into the joys of science. The speaker advised us to do nothing that might conceivably be seen as a turn-off. Always make your science 'relevant' to ordinary people's lives, to what goes on in their own kitchen or bathroom. Where possible, choose experimental materials that your audience can eat at the end. At the last event organized by the speaker himself, the scientific phenomenon that really grabbed attention was the urinal that automatically flushed as you stepped away. The very word science is best avoided, we were told, because 'ordinary people' see it as threatening.
I have little doubt that such dumbing down will be successful if our aim is to maximize the total population count at our 'event'. But when I protest that what is being marketed here is not real science, I am rebuked for my 'elitism' and told that luring people in, by any means, is a necessary first step. Well, if we must use the word (I wouldn't), maybe elitism is not such a terrible thing. And there is a great difference between an exclusive snobbery and an embracing, flattering elitism that strives to help people to raise their game and join the elite. A calculated dumbing down is the worst: condescending and patronizing. When I gave these views in a recent lecture in America, a questioner at the end, no doubt with a glow of political self-congratulation in his white male heart, had the insulting impertinence to suggest that dumbing down might be necessary to bring 'minorities and women' to science.
I worry that to promote science as all fun and larky and easy is to store up trouble for the future. Real science can be hard (well, challenging, to give it a more positive spin) but, like classical literature or playing the violin, worth the struggle. If children are lured into science, or any other worthwhile occupation, by the promise of easy fun, what are they going to do when they finally have to confront the reality? Recruiting advertisements for the army rightly don't promise a picnic: they seek young people dedicated enough to stand the pace. 'Fun' sends the wrong signals and might attract people to science for the wrong reasons. Literary scholarship is in danger of becoming similarly undermined. Idle students are seduced into a debased 'Cultural Studies', on the promise that they will spend their time deconstructing soap operas, tabloid princesses and Tellytubbies. Science, like proper literary studies, can be hard and challenging but science is—also like proper literary studies—wonderful. Science can pay its way but, like great art, it shouldn't have to. And we shouldn't need whacky personalities and fun explosions to persuade us of the value of a life spent finding out why we have life in the first place.
I fear that I may have been too negative in this attack, but there are times when a pendulum has swung far enough and needs a strong push in the other direction to restore equilibrium. Of course science is fun, in the sense that it is the very opposite of boring. It can enthral a good mind for a lifetime. Certainly, practical demonstrations can help to make ideas vivid and lasting in the mind. From Michael Faraday's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures to Richard Gregory's Bristol Exploratory, children have been excited by hands-on experience of true science. I have myself been honoured to give the Christmas Lectures, in their modern televised form, and I depended upon plenty of hands-on demonstrations. Faraday never dumbed down. I am attacking only the kind of populist whoring that defiles the wonder of science.
Annually there is a large dinner in London at which prizes for the year's best popular science books are awarded. One prize is for children's books on science, and it was recently won by a book about insects and other 'horrible ugly bugs'. That kind of language is perhaps not best calculated to arouse the poetic sense of wonder, but let us be tolerant and acknowledge other ways of attracting the interest of children. Harder to forgive were the antics of the chairman of the judges, a well-known television personality (who had recently sold out to the lucrative genre of 'paranormal' television). Squeaking with game-show levity, she incited the large audience (of adults) to join her in repeated choruses of audible grimaces at the contemplation of the horrible 'ugly bugs'. 'Eeeuurrrgh! Yuck! Yeeyuck! Eeeeeuurrrgh!' That kind of vulgar fun demeans the wonder of science, and risks 'turning off' the very people best qualified to appreciate it and inspire others: real poets and true scholars of literature.
By poets, of course, I intend artists of all kinds. Michelangelo and Bach were paid to celebrate the sacred themes of their times and the results will always strike human senses as sublime. But we shall never know how such genius might have responded to alternative commissions. As Michelangelo's mind moved upon silence 'Like a long-legged fly upon the stream', what might he not have painted if he had known the contents of one nerve cell from a long-legged fly? Think of the 'Dies Irae' that might have been wrung from Verdi by the contemplation of the dinosaurs' fate when, 65 million years ago, a mountain-sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatan peninsula and the world went dark. Try to imagine Beethoven's 'Evolution Symphony', Haydn's oratorio on 'The Expanding Universe', or Milton's epic The Milky Way. As for Shakespeare ... But we don't have to aim so high. Lesser poets would be a fine start.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.
Unrhyming Poems, 1928
D. H. Lawrence's poem about hummingbirds is almost wholly inaccurate and therefore, superficially, unscientific. Yet, in spite of this, it is a passable shot at how a poet might take inspiration from geological time. Lawrence lacked only a couple of tutorials in evolution and taxonomy to bring his poem within the pale of accuracy, and it would be no less arresting and thought-provoking as a poem. After another tutorial Lawrence, the miner's son, might have turned fresh eyes on his coal fire, whose glowing energy last saw the light of day—was the light of day—when it warmed the Carboniferous treeferns, to be laid down in earth's dark cellar and sealed for three million centuries. A larger obstacle would have been Lawrence's hostility to what he wrongly thought of as the anti-poetic spirit of science and scientists, as when he grumbled that
Knowledge has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots ... The world of reason and science ... this is the dry and sterile world the abstracted mind inhabits.
I am almost reluctant to admit that my favourite of all poets is that confused Irish mystic William Butler Yeats. In old age Yeats sought a theme and sought for it in vain, finally returning, in desperation, to enumerate old themes of his fin de siècle young manhood. How sad to give up, wrecked among heathen dreams, marooned amid the faeries and fey Irishry of his affected youth when, an hour's drive from Yeats's tower, Ireland housed the largest astronomical telescope then built. This was the 72-inch reflector, built before Yeats was born by William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, at Birr Castle (where it has now been restored by the seventh earl). What might a single glance at the Milky Way through the eyepiece of the 'Leviathan of Parsonstown' not have done for the frustrated poet who, as a young man, had written these unforgettable lines?
Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days:
Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely, majestical multitude.
from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
Those would make fine last words for a scientist, as would, now that I think about it, the poet's own epitaph, 'Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./ Horseman, pass by!' But, like Blake, Yeats was no lover of science, dismissing it (absurdly), as the 'opium of the suburbs', and calling us to 'Move upon Newton's town.' That is sad, and the kind of thing that drives me to write my books.
Keats, too, complained that Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by explaining it. By more general implication, science is poetry's killjoy, dry and cold, cheerless, overbearing and lacking in everything that a young Romantic might desire. To proclaim the opposite is one purpose of this book, and I shall here limit myself to the untestable speculation that Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science for some of his inspiration.
It has been pointed out that Keats's medical education may have equipped him to recognize the mortal symptoms of his own tuberculosis, as when he ominously diagnosed his own arterial blood. Science, for him, would not have been the bringer of good news, so it is less wonder if he found solace in an antiseptic world of classical myth, losing himself among panpipes and naiads, nymphs and dryads, just as Yeats was to do among their Celtic counterparts. Irresistible as I find both poets, forgive my wondering whether the Greeks would have recognized their legends in Keats, or the Celts theirs in Yeats. Were these great poets as well served as they could have been by their sources of inspiration? Did prejudice against reason weigh down the wings of poesy?
It is my thesis that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysticism, Keats to Arcadian myth and Yeats to Fenians and fairies, is the very same spirit that moves great scientists; a spirit which, if fed back to poets in scientific guise, might inspire still greater poetry. In support, I adduce the less elevated genre of science fiction. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and others have used prose-poetry to evoke the romance of scientific themes, in some cases explicitly linking them to the myths of antiquity. The best of science fiction seems to me an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature. More than one reputable scientist has been introduced to what I am calling the spirit of wonder through an early fascination with science fiction.
At the lower end of the science fiction market the same spirit has been abused for more sinister ends, but the bridge to mystical and romantic poetry can still be discerned. At least one major religion, Scientology, was founded by a science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard (whose entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations reads, 'If you really want to make a million ... the quickest way is to start your own religion'). The now dead adherents of the cult of 'Heaven's Gate' probably never knew that the phrase appears twice in Shakespeare and twice in Keats, but they knew all about Star Trek and were obsessed with it. The language of their website is a preposterous caricature of misunderstood science, laced with bad romantic poetry.
The cult of The X-Files has been defended as harmless because it is, after all, only fiction. On the face of it, that is a fair defence. But regularly recurring fiction—soap operas, cop series and the like—are legitimately criticized if, week after week, they systematically present a one-sided view of the world. The X-Files is a television series in which, every week, two FBI agents face a mystery. One of the two, Scully, favours a rational, scientific explanation; the other agent, Mulder, goes for an explanation which either is supernatural or, at very least, glorifies the inexplicable. The problem with The X-Files is that routinely, relentlessly, the supernatural explanation, or at least the Mulder end of the spectrum, usually turns out to be the answer. I'm told that, in recent episodes, even the sceptical agent Scully is starting to have her confidence shaken, and no wonder.
But isn't it just harmless fiction, then? No, I think the defence rings hollow. Imagine a television series in which two police officers solve a crime each week. Every week there is one black suspect and one white suspect. One of the two detectives is always biased towards the black suspect, the other biased towards the white. And, week after week, the black suspect turns out to have done it. So, what's wrong with that? After all, it's only fiction! Shocking as it is, I believe the analogy to be a completely fair one. I am not saying that supernaturalist propaganda is as dangerous or unpleasant as racist propaganda. But The X-Files systematically purveys an anti-rational view of the world which, by virtue of its recurrent persistence, is insidious.
Another bastard form of science fiction converges upon Tolkienian faked-up myth. Physicists rub shoulders with wizards, interplanetary aliens escort princesses sidesaddle on unicorns, thousand-port-holed space stations loom out of the same mist as medieval castles with ravens (or even pterodactyls) wheeling around their gothic turrets. True, or calculatedly modified, science is replaced by magic, which is the easy way out.
Good science fiction has no dealings with fairy-tale magic spells, but is premised on the world as an orderly place. There is mystery, but the universe is not frivolous nor light-fingered in its changeability. If you put a brick on a table it stays there unless something moves it, even if you have forgotten it is there. Poltergeists and sprites don't intervene and hurl it about for reasons of mischief or caprice. Science fiction may tinker with the laws of nature, advisedly and preferably one law at a time, but it cannot abolish lawfulness itself and remain good science fiction. Fictional computers may become consciously malevolent or even, in Douglas Adams's masterly science comedies, paranoid; spaceships may warp-drive themselves to distant galaxies using some postulated future technology, but the decencies of science are essentially maintained. Science allows mystery but not magic, strangeness beyond wild imagining but no spells or witchery, no cheap and easy miracles. Bad science fiction loses its grip on moderated lawfulness and substitutes the 'anything goes' profligacy of magic. The worst of bad science fiction joins hands with the 'paranormal', that other lazy, misbegotten child of the sense of wonder which ought to be motivating true science. The popularity of this kind of pseudo-science at least seems to suggest that the sense of wonder is widespread and heartfelt, however misapplied it may be. Here lies the only consolation I can find in the pre-millennial media obsession with the paranormal; with the immensely successful X-Files and with popular television shows in which routine conjuring tricks are misrepresented as violating natural law.
But let us return to Auden's pleasing compliment and our inversion of it. Why do some scientists feel like shabby curates among literary dukes, and why do many in our society perceive them so? Undergraduates specializing in science at my own university have occasionally remarked to me (wistfully, for peer pressure in their cohort is strong) that their subject is not seen as 'cool'. This was illustrated for me by a smart young journalist whom I met on a recent BBC television discussion series. She seemed almost intrigued to meet a scientist, for she confided that when at Oxford she had never known any. Her circle had regarded them from a distance as 'grey men', especially pitying their habit of getting out of bed before lunch. Of all absurd excesses, they attended 9 a.m. lectures and then worked through the morning in the labs. That great humanist and humanitarian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru, as befits the first prime minister of a country that cannot afford to mess about, had a more realistic view of science.
It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving people ... Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid ... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science*.
Nevertheless, the confidence with which scientists sometimes state how much we know and how useful science can be, may spill over into arrogance. The distinguished embryologist Lewis Wolpert once admitted that science is occasionally arrogant, and he went on to remark, mildly, that science has a certain amount to be arrogant about. Peter Medawar, Carl Sagan and Peter Atkins have all said something similar.
Arrogant or not, we at least pay lip-service to the idea that science advances by disproof of its hypotheses. Konrad Lorenz, father of ethology, characteristically exaggerated when he said he looked forward to disproving at least one pet hypothesis daily, before breakfast. But it is true that scientists, more than, say, lawyers, doctors or politicians, gain prestige among their peers by publicly admitting their mistakes. One of the formative experiences of my Oxford undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared, in ringing emotional tones, 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.' We clapped our hands red. Is any other profession so generous towards its admitted mistakes?
Science progresses by correcting its mistakes, and makes no secret of what it still does not understand. Yet the opposite is widely perceived. Bernard Levin, when a columnist on The Times of London, sporadically published tirades against science, and on 11 October 1996 he wrote one headed 'God, me and Dr Dawkins', with the subtitle 'Scientists don't know and nor do I—but at least I know I don't know', above which was a cartoon of me as Michelangelo's Adam encountering the pointing finger of God. But as any scientist would vigorously protest, it is of the essence of science to know what we do not know. This is precisely what drives us to find out. In an earlier column, of 29 July 1994, Bernard Levin had made light of the idea of quarks ('The quarks are coming! The quarks are coming! Run for your lives ...'). After further cracks about 'noble science' having given us mobile telephones, collapsible umbrellas and multi-striped toothpaste, he broke into mock seriousness:
Can you eat quarks? Can you spread them on your bed when the cold weather comes?
This sort of thing doesn't really deserve a reply, but the Cambridge metallurgist Sir Alan Cottrell gave it two sentences, in a Letter to the Editor a few days later.
Sir: Mr Bernard Levin asks 'Can you eat quarks?' I estimate that he eats 500, 000,000, 000,000, 000,000, 000,001 quarks a day ... Yours faithfully...
Admitting what you don't know is a virtue, but gloating ignorance of the arts on such a scale would, quite rightly, not be tolerated by any editor. Philistine ignorance of science is still, in some quarters, thought witty and clever. How else to explain the following little joke, by a recent editor of the London Daily Telegraph? The paper was reporting the dumbfounding fact that a third of the British population still believes that the sun goes round the earth. At this point the editor inserted a note in square brackets: '[Doesn't it? Ed.]' If a survey had shown a third of the British populace believing that Shakespeare wrote The Iliad, no editor would humorously feign ignorance of Homer. But it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science and proudly claim incompetence in mathematics. I have made the point often enough to sound plaintive, so let me quote Melvyn Bragg, one of the most justly respected commentators on the arts in Britain, from his book about scientists, On Giants' Shoulders (1998).
There are still those who are affected enough to say they know nothing about the sciences as if this somehow makes them superior. What it makes them is rather silly, and it puts them at the fag end of that tired old British tradition of intellectual snobbery which considers all knowledge, especially science, as 'trade'.
Sir Peter Medawar, that swashbuckling Nobel Prize-winner whom I've already cited, said something similar about 'trade', vividly lampooning the British distaste for all things practical.
It is said that in ancient China the mandarins allowed their fingernails—or anyhow one of them—to grow so extremely long as manifestly to unfit them for any manual activity, thus making it perfectly clear to all that they were creatures too refined and elevated ever to engage in such employments. It is a gesture that cannot but appeal to the English, who surpass all other nations in snobbishness; our fastidious distaste for the applied sciences and for trade has played a large part in bringing England to the position in the world which she occupies today.
The Limits of Science (1984)
Antipathy to science can become quite pettish. Listen to the novelist and feminist Fay Weldon's hymn of hate against 'the scientists', also in the Daily Telegraph, on 2 December 1991. (I imply nothing by this coincidence, for the paper has an energetic science editor and fine coverage of scientific topics):
Don't expect us to like you. You promised us too much and failed to deliver. You never even tried to answer the questions we all asked when we were six. Where did Aunt Maud go when she died? Where was she before she was bom?
Note that this accusation is the precise opposite of Bernard Levin's (that scientists don't know when they don't know). If I were to offer a simple and direct best-guess answer to both those Aunt Maud questions, I'd certainly be called arrogant and presumptuous, going beyond what I could possibly know, going beyond the limits of science. Miss Weldon continues:
You think these questions are simplistic and embarrassing, but they're the ones which interest us. And who cares about half a second after the Big Bang; what about half a second before? And what about crop circles? ... The scientists just can't face the notion of a variable universe. We can.
She never makes clear who this all-inclusive, anti-scientific 'we' is, and she probably, by now, regrets the tone of her piece. But it is worth worrying where such naked hostility comes from.
Another example of anti-science, though in this case possibly intended to be funny, is a piece from A. A. Gill, a humorous loose cannon of a columnist in the Sunday Times of London (8 September 1996). He refers to science as constrained by experiment, and by the tedious, plodding stepping stones of empiricism. He contrasts it with art and with the theatre, with the magic of lights, fairy dust, music and applause.
There are stars and there are stars, darling. Some are dull, repetitive squiggles on paper, and some are fabulous, witty, thought-provoking, incredibly popular...
'Dull, repetitive squiggles' is a reference to the discovery of pulsars, by Bell and Hewish at Cambridge in 1967. Gill was reviewing a television programme in which the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell recalled the spine-tingling moment when she first knew, looking at the print-out from Anthony Hewish's radio telescope, that she was seeing something hitherto unheard of in the universe. A young woman on the threshold of a career, the 'dull, repetitive squiggles' on her roll of paper spoke to her in tones of revolution. Not something new under the sun: a whole new kind of sun, a pulsar. Pulsars spin so fast that, where our planet takes 24 hours to rotate, a pulsar may take a fraction of a second. Yet the beam of energy that brings us the news, sweeping round like a lighthouse with such astonishing speed and clocking the seconds more accurately than a quartz crystal, may take millions of years to reach us. Darling, how too too tedious, how madly empirical, my dear! Give me fairy dust at the panto any day.
I do not think that such fretful, shallow antipathy results from the common tendency to shoot the messenger, or to blame science for political misuses like hydrogen bombs. No, the hostility I have quoted sounds to me more personally anguished, almost threatened, beleaguered, fearful of humiliation because science is seen as too difficult to master. Oddly enough, I would not dare to go so far as John Carey, professor of English literature at Oxford, when he writes, in the preface to his admirable Faber Book of Science (1995):
The annual hordes competing for places on arts courses in British universities, and the trickle of science applicants, testify to the abandonment of science among the young. Though most academics are wary of saying it straight out, the general consensus seems to be that arts courses are popular because they are easier; and that most arts students would simply not be up to the intellectual demands of a science course.
Some of the more mathematical sciences may be hard, but nobody should have trouble understanding the circulation of the blood and the heart's role in pumping it round. Carey relates how he quoted to a class of 30 undergraduates, in their final year reading English at a great university, Donne's lines, 'Knows't thou how blood, which to the heart doth flow,/Doth from one ventricle to the other go?' Carey asked them how, as a matter of fact, the blood does flow. None of the 30 could answer, and one tentatively guessed that it might be 'by osmosis'. This is not just wrong. Even more spectacularly, it is dull. Dull compared to the truth that the total length of capillaries round which the heart pumps the blood, from ventricle to ventricle, is more than 50 miles. If 50 miles of tubing are packed inside a human body, you can readily work out how finely and intricately ramified most of those tubes must be. I don't think any true scholar could fail to find this an arresting thought. And unlike, say, quantum theory or relativity, it certainly isn't difficult to understand, though it may be difficult to credit. So I take a more charitable view than Professor Carey and wonder whether these young people had simply been let down by scientists and insufficiently inspired by them. Perhaps an emphasis on practical experiment at school, while excellently suited to some children, may be superfluous or positively counterproductive for those who are equally clever but clever in a different way.
Recently I did a television programme about science in our culture (it was, in fact, the one being reviewed by A. A. Gill). Among the many appreciative letters I received was one which poignantly began: 'I am a clarinet teacher whose only memory of science at school was a long period of studying the bunsen burner.' The letter led me to reflect that it is possible to enjoy the Mozart concerto without being able to play the clarinet. In fact, you can learn to be an expert connoisseur of music without being able to play a note on any instrument. Of course, music would come to a halt if nobody ever learned to play it. But if everybody grew up thinking that music was synonymous with playing it, think how relatively impoverished many lives would be.
Couldn't we learn to think of science in the same way? It is certainly important that some people, indeed some of our brightest and best, should learn to do science as a practical subject. But couldn't we also teach science as something to read and rejoice in, like learning how to listen to music rather than slaving over five-finger exercises in order to play it? Keats shied away from the dissecting room, and who can blame him? Darwin did the same. Perhaps if he had been taught in a less practical way, Keats would have been more sympathetic to science and Newton.
It is here that I would seek rapprochement with Britain's best-known journalistic critic of science, Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times. Jenkins is a more formidable adversary than the others I have quoted because he knows what he is talking about. He readily concedes that science books can be inspiring, but he resents the high profile science receives in modern compulsory education syllabuses. In a taped conversation with me in 1996, he said:
I can think of very few science books I've read that I've called useful. What they've been is wonderful They've actually made me feel that the world around me is a much fuller, much more wonderful, much more awesome place than I ever realized it was. That has been, for me, the wonder of science. That's why science fiction retains its compelling fascination for people. That's why the move of science fiction into biology is so intriguing. I think that science has got a wonderful story to tell. But it isn't useful. It's not useful like a course in business studies or law is useful, or even a course in politics and economics.
Jenkins's view that science is not useful is so idiosyncratic that I shall pass over it. Usually even its sternest critics concede that science is useful, perhaps all too useful, while at the same time missing Jenkins's more important point that it can be wonderful. For them, science in its usefulness undermines our humanity or destroys the mystery on which poetry is sometimes thought to thrive. For another thoughtful British journalist, Bryan Appleyard, writing in 1992, science is doing 'appalling spiritual damage'. It is 'talking us into abandoning ourselves, our true selves'. Which brings me back to Keats and his rainbow, and leads us into the next chapter.