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This paper is a slightly amended version of a presentation I gave at the 13th European Skeptics Congress in Dublin, September 7-9, 2007.
In this presentation I am going to discuss the role of scientists in our society particularly in relation to the power that they wield. I shall also say something about science and religion. But before I go further, let me give due acknowledgement to the fact that it is a simplification to think of scientists as some homogenous subsection of the population and to have debates about scientists telling us this or scientists not believing that, or conspiracy theories based on what the scientists are not telling us, and so on. I really would prefer to talk about scholarship and learning in general and not just science, and this includes history, political studies, biography and so on. And I also include anyone who is engaged in a professional activity that is informed by scientific methods of enquiry.
Every year, during a week in March, the two universities in Sheffield, under the auspices of the British Association for Science, organise Science Week. Lecturers at the universities make themselves available to give talks at local schools on some aspect of their scientific work. My colleague Tony Youens and I always offer to talk on Science and the Paranormal and always manage two or three bookings. I should say that nowadays I am only an honorary lecturer at the University and Tony is a guest lecturer for Science Week.
Our aim is to try and help young people understand what is special about science and what the difference is between claims that are said to be scientific and those that we say are unscientific.
Often, by way of introduction to the scientific method, I say something like the following.
When human beings first looked up at the sky on a dark clear night they would have seen, of course, thousands of points of light, most of which we now call stars. They would have wondered what these points of light were, and one of the things they would immediately observe is that they vary in brightness from very bright to vary faint. They would have been curious about this and would have asked why this was so. They would want to explain what they observed. (This story of the Creation of Science, like other Creation stories, is not to be taken literally.)
I then invite the class to suggest what explanations or hypotheses the people would come up with to explain what they observed. Naturally the most popular ones are that the bright stars are bigger than the faint ones and they are nearer, and sometimes someone says that they are hotter.
After they have given their explanations I congratulate the children for being such good scientists. Like the earliest humans, they are attempting to explain what they observe in ways that they already best understand. Nearer objects and bigger objects tend to appear brighter and some very bright objects tend also to be very hot.
One year a little girl put up her hand and said that the people would say that some stars are brighter because 'They are more important'.
Thinking about this afterwards I wish that I had said to this pupil, 'What a very good answer that is!'. It is exactly what early humans setting out on their voyage of discovery would have said, since it would have been their experience that large things tend to be more 'important' than small things. However, I was quite unprepared for this answer and, not being such a quick thinker, I simply exchanged smiles with the teacher and thanked the girl for her answer.
Why was I thrown off-balance by this little girl's reply? I think I was concerned that there was just a touch of anthropocentricity about it; that is making human beings the part of the explanation. Let me expand.
Once upon a time the Earth was ruled by a great giant. This giant's prize possession was a collection of diamonds - thousands and thousands of them - that he kept in a huge treasure chest by his bed. The giant had three sons who could not wait for him to die so that they could have the diamonds for themselves. One night, the giant was lying in his bed, old and frail and not long for this world. Thinking that he was asleep, his three sons quietly entered his bedroom and went to the treasure chest to help themselves to some of his diamonds. Suddenly the giant realised what was happening. He leapt from his bed and, in great anger, seized the chest and dragged it to the window. Then, to the horror of his three sons, he began hurling great handfuls of the diamonds as far away as he could into the night sky. All night long he carried on throwing the diamonds away, though he was growing weaker and weaker and could not throw them so far. And now on a clear night when you look up into the sky, you still see the giant's diamonds, the brightest ones being the handful that he threw away last of all before, in a state of complete exhaustion, he died.
This explanation of why there are bright stars and faint stars is indeed based on what we already know and understand about the world. There are simple truths, such as the fact that a weak arm cannot throw objects as a far as a strong one. But there are also profound truths about human life to do with greed, corruption, betrayal, and the knowledge that the things we lust after are often placed beyond our reach.
However, it is not a scientific explanation because it is not simple and it is unnecessarily anthropocentric: human beings are part of the explanation.
Well, back to Science Week. In the presentation I next recap on what we have learned so far about Science. First of all we have the motivation, the curiosity, the drive to observe everything about the world. Second we have the motivation to wonder, and to search for explanations for what we observe. And third is the attempt, whenever possible, to base those explanations upon what we already know and understand best about the world.
There is another important stage in this process, namely to keep observing – to collect more and more evidence - and to check whether the evidence is consistent with our existing explanations or theories and, if not, to amend the these so that they are consistent with the evidence.
For example, our ancestors, as they gazed up at the night sky, would have observed that the stars moved across the sky. How would they explain this? As simply as possible in terms of what they already knew. Either the stars orbited around the Earth or the Earth itself rotated. They would also observe that a handful of 'stars' moved in rather eccentric ways. They called these objects 'planets'; they would continue observing them and they would attempt to explain their motion from their existing knowledge, eventually concluding that the planets, including the Earth, orbited the Sun.
When we have discussed this with the class, Tony takes over and performs some 'paranormal' feats, such as spoon bending and mind reading. The children try to come up with simple explanations of what they observe by reference to what they know best about the world and we ask them how they might test out their explanations.
Some people have suggested that the scientific way of thinking is different from everyday thinking, but I don't go along with this. At least it is not inconsistent with our ways of attempting to understand everyday events in our lives. In the middle of the night I hear a sudden noise and immediately conclude that the picture that I hung in the lounge that day has just fallen down. I test this by further observation: I get up and go down to the lounge, only to find that the picture is still on the wall. My hypothesis is falsified. Perhaps the noise happened because someone left the kitchen window open, so I next go into the kitchen to observe whether this is the case. If the window is indeed open my explanation is supported, but not proven: the noise might still have been caused by something else. Also, I don't consider explanations that contradict my existing knowledge, say that the noise was caused by the postman, since he doesn't come at night, or by a ghost or an extra-terrestrial visitor.
This is not unlike the scientific method. However, going back to our early history, what is certainly true is that as time went by, the observations that were being made of the universe would became more and more detailed, as the means of making these observations became increasingly sophisticated, such as ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes. Likewise, the means of arriving at the explanations or theories to account for the observations would become increasingly complex, requiring not just everyday logic but often highly sophisticated mathematics.
This development has a significant consequence, namely that the proportion of the population who could directly engage in this activity would gradually diminish. To begin with we could all gaze up at the sky and understand that the varying brightness of the stars might be due to their size, distance, temperature and so on. However, most people would not have the time to pursue this activity to any great depth. Likewise, as the explanations and the theories became increasingly complex, fewer and fewer people would have the ability and the knowledge to have a detailed understanding of them and to engage in the painstaking task of evaluating their validity. These activities would gradually be confined to a smaller proportion of the population, especially as science became more and more specialised. We thus see the gradual rise of an important minority, a group of people in our community whom we identify as scientists.
Put simply, scientists are an elite group who claim the expertise and the knowledge to inform us of important truths about the world we live in, about ourselves, about how we originated and what our place is in the universe, what is our likely destiny, individually and collectively, and very importantly what isn't true about all such matters.
This claim to be able to interpret on our behalf our world, our lives, our experiences, what is best for us, what is wrong with us when we are ill in mind and body, what the remedies are, and so on is a claim to power. And scientists now are very powerful.
Why are scientists so powerful? The obvious reason is that the enterprise of science is brilliantly successful. The derivation and critical analysis of modern scientific theories may be beyond the grasp of most people, but scientific discoveries and the technological achievements of applied science are stunningly evident to everyone. I need say no more about this here.
There are other reasons. I believe that one of them is that governments, public institutions and the public at large are able to acknowledge, explicitly or implicitly, that scientific endeavour is the discovery and accumulation of reliable truths about our material world and is the best way we have of achieving this. People still want to be involved in this process of learning more and more about the world and understanding and explaining what's there. But now, most of us cannot engage in this directly and we rely on scientists to inform us. (It may be relevant to note that those scientific disciplines in which the public, as 'amateurs', are most active tend to be those that involve a great deal of observation and collecting of information, such as astronomy, palaeontology ('fossil hunting') and archaeology, and the study of the natural world, such as 'bird-watching').
When people ask me why I am 'a sceptic' I often say it is because I believe like most people that there is a real world out there – reality exists – but that establishing the truth about that world is extremely difficult. Indeed, this is true of everyday life: the information that guides our daily activities, our decisions, our beliefs and opinions, our gossip, and so on is so often inaccurate, distorted and incomplete, as is our reasoning that goes along with it.
Real, reliable truth is very difficult to come by and is hard won. 'We see through a glass darkly' (Corinthians, xiii, 1). And everything that we now understand about the nature of our world in scientific terms is the accumulation of centuries of honest, dedicated, painstaking observation.
As I said, in our society the power of scientists looms large. In any society, power that is claimed by one faction will tend to be opposed by others.
This opposition to power is inevitable and it is a healthy society that is able to tolerate this. This is very much the case in Western democratic societies. However, for example in my own country, until recently those in the ascendancy – the barons, the monarch, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the aristocracy, and so on - have all endeavoured to eliminate those opposing their power by repression, expulsion, imprisonment, torture, murder, and so on.
And amongst their victims have been science and scientists. Metaphorically, George Orwell wrote, 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four'. And now we are free to say that two plus two make four. But what about those who say that two plus two make five? How far is a healthy society able to allow such people or groups of people the freedom to insist on such beliefs? I hope that the answer is 'completely'.
Perhaps some people oppose science because they wish to arrive at their own understanding of the world and their place in it. One might feel disempowered by having to agree with the answers that scientists insist are the correct ones, when one cannot share in the discovery of those answers.
Now and again in sceptical publications and at meetings of sceptics, alarm is expressed at the public endorsement of irrational and unproven or discredited beliefs. For example, a survey may show that a significant proportion of the population attach significance to their daily horoscope or believe in ghosts or visitations by extra-terrestrial beings.
We should be careful with our expressions of disapproval of this. Firstly, it should be a cause for some celebration that people are free to subscribe to such a rich variety of ideas and beliefs. Secondly, purely from a public relations standpoint, scientists and sceptics don't do their causes any favours to be seen and heard disapproving of ideas and beliefs entertained by many people in ordinary walks of life. It seems like snobbery, and it is liable to offend people's ideas about personal freedom. And thirdly, whether people believe in things such as the existence of God, ghosts and the after-life, or in astrology and so on, is a much more complex matter than can be revealed simply by asking them to say whether they do believe in them or not. Most notably, many beliefs are fluid. By this I mean that whether someone believes in something strange or irrational can depend on the context.
For example, let's say that one day someone called Fred is thinking of betting a small amount on a horserace. He notices, however, that his horoscope advises him not to do anything risky that day. He therefore decides not to place his bet. Fred clearly believes in astrology. Now suppose instead that Fred is undergoing a surgical operation that day that carries some level of risk. After he has consulted his horoscope, would he ask the surgeon if he or she could postpone the operation? I doubt it, even though the risks to Fred are more serious than losing his bet. Does Fred still believe in astrology?
In other words, people are not necessarily consistent in their stated beliefs and often their behaviour is inconsistent with them. For example, as George Orwell said, 'As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents'.
And is it so irrational to retain a belief in something strange and questionable when one has no personal reason for abandoning it? A person, such as a committed scientist or a devout believer in a particular religion or philosophy, may consider it important to decide that ghosts do not exist. But for many people there is no pressing reason why they should close the door on the possibility that they do exist; there may come a time when they have to decide, but in the meantime, why close the door when you don't need to?
Of course, as sceptics we must still continue to promote rational and scientific ideas, beliefs and practices. And there is something that we still need to consider about those people who, metaphorically speaking, claim that two and two make five? How much power is allowed those who propagate such beliefs?
Many people say that science is just like religion. It may be argued that, just as religious and supernatural beliefs are based on faith, so the scientists' explanations and theories are likewise based on faith: faith in scientific methodology. Also, isn't our acceptance of the validity of what scientists tell us also based on faith, our faith and trust in scientists? As I have already said, it is only a small minority of people who are able directly to access the scientific data in any particular specialism and to understand how the theories are derived. For example, if I say I believe in evolution or the Big Bang I am not doing so because I have made a thorough study of the evidence and the reasoning and mathematical derivations. I have tried my best to understand what scientists are revealing to us, but in the end I have to trust in their honesty and competence.
Hence, there is I believe some truth in this idea of faith in scientists. Perhaps then our relationship with scientists is not that different from people's relationship with priests or other religious leaders who interpret The Word on their behalf.
Why then should scientists be afforded the privilege of so much power? Power in our schools, at our universities, in our hospitals and health services, in our civil and criminal justice systems, in government, and even in the media.
Going back to the talks that Tony Youens and I give during Science Week, I often say to the class, 'Science is like football. It's something people do and if they don't want to do it, it won't get done. It won't exist'. Science is a major human activity that people may choose to do or not and within science people chose what field of enquiry or practice they wish to engage in. As such, it cannot fail to have a moral dimension to it.
The rules of scientific enquiry can be construed purely in intellectual terms, but because science is undertaken by human beings, these rules cannot be detached from the scientist's own personal integrity and honesty, at least whilst he of she is being a scientist. (How scientists behave themselves when they are not pursuing science is of course another matter.)
In other words, in their search of truth and in the expression of their beliefs about what is true or may be so, scientists are accountable to a set of rules. If, by gross neglect or deliberate intent, scientists fail to adhere to these rules, then this may also be construed as an ethical and even a moral failing.
Of course, the worst sin that a scientist can commit as a scientist is to fabricate his or her data. If like, for example, South Korea's Hwang Woo-suk, you are tempted, 'Be sure your sin will find you out' (Numbers xxxii, 23).
Is adherence to the exacting standards of scientific enquiry an ideal beyond the capabilities of any mere mortal, just as adherence to the Ten Commandments or the precepts taught by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount? Probably. Because they are human, scientists fall short of the required standards of being truly objective and impartial. They tend to worship their own theories and are often more than a little disinclined to accept evidence that contradicts them. In other words, when they are held accountable to the noble ideals of their calling, all scientists are miserable sinners, though some are more miserable than others.
And if we go beyond the immediate requirements of scientific endeavour and consider the social context of their professional conduct, it isn't unheard of for scientists to inflate their own self-importance and status. Like everyone else, they enjoy power, and they allow disagreements, feuds, personal rivalries and so on to affect their judgement in their professional life and, occasionally, their commitment to their pursuit of science and its practical application. All of this is inevitable because science is something that is undertaken by human beings.
But so far as scientific discovery and application is concerned, the saving grace of scientists is the very clear framework of accountability that is characteristic of science.
So what about those people who claim that two and two make five? Where do we and they stand on this issue of power?
What is it that people want when they demand to be let into our schools to try and persuade children that the world is 6,000 years old and human beings co-existed with dinosaurs, against all the existing evidence? What is it that people want when they insist that our state health services should employ them to treat sick people with medicines and procedures based on unsupported ideas and whose efficacy has not been objectively supported? Or that universities should have Bachelor of Science degrees in their practices? What are these people after when they demand that that they be excused from the legal requirement that the claim for the curative value of any treatment should be scientifically supported? What is that people like astrologers and psychic mediums want when they refuse to contemplate the obvious fact that their methods are based on simple psychological techniques that have nothing to do with the planets or the life hereafter?
Clearly, like most people, including scientists, they want to advance themselves. They want status and power, albeit often the power to do good, but power all the same. But more than this, they want power without accountability: 'The privilege of the harlot throughout the ages', as Stanley Baldwin remarked.
They desire the same power that society grants to scientists. The power to interpret on our behalf what is true about the world we live in, about how we originated and what our place is in the universe, what is our likely destiny, what is best for us, what is wrong with us when we are ill, what the remedies are, and so on. And just like scientist they claim to have the relevant knowledge and expertise that most of us do not possess. But they want all this without the burden of accountability.
So this is where the real defence of science and rationality should take place and, mercifully, is taking place. In our schools, universities and colleges of further education, in our hospitals and health services, in politics, our justices system, other public institutions, and as always in the media. It is about power and accountability and it cannot therefore escape the political dimension.
As I have made comparisons between science and religion I would like to end my talk by telling you a story that featured on British television quite a number of years ago.
One day two brothers were out walking when suddenly, for no other reason than their ethnic origins, they were set upon by a gang of youths and beaten up. One of the men was so badly injured that when the youths ran off he lay dying on the ground. His brother stood over him and from his pocket took photographs of his children and held them before his brother's eyes. And his brother died. But just at that moment help was at hand. An ambulance arrived. Not an ordinary ambulance, but a helicopter ambulance. As it landed, out ran a doctor carrying his life-saving equipment, and by his knowledge and skills he was able to use this technology to resuscitate his patient. This man eventually made an almost complete recovery.
This is a true story, a story of our time. A man is sent down from the heavens and restores life to a dead person. And this made possible by the willingness of human beings to engage in that honest, painstaking search for truth that we call science and to use that knowledge for the good of humankind.
Perhaps I should add that the victim’s brother declared that Allah – God - had sent the doctor down to save his brother.
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