Hostility to science

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 18 July 1992.

THIS week I had the pleasure of sitting at table with some distinguished scientists, and the conversation turned to the hostility towards science in Britain. In the past few years this dislike has acquired a new virulence and is exceeded only by the detestation of European bureaucrats, the scapegoats of the age.

It is a persistent theme. My father, a cultivated man, had a contempt for science to the extent that he tacitly encouraged me to slack at it in school. The Edinburgh Academy was at that time dedicated to producing recruits for the law, the civil service, and the ruling classes. Science teachers were in my day a bit of a joke. Our hero was the classics master who, it was said, consumed a bottle of whisky for breakfast and had verses published from time to time in Punch. I gather that life at the academy is much changed.

My father’s attitude I never quite understood but guess that, as a son of the manse, he was still influenced by the Darwinian controversies of the nineteenth century. In 1859 Darwin’s work on the Origin of the Species was furiously denounced by the clergy. This controversy, which had begun half a century before my father’s birth, would certainly have washed into the manse in Orkney where he grew up.

Throughout the nineteenth century the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge largely ignored science. The humanities were the passe-partout of the ruling classes. In the minds of many, science was associated with industrialisation and the loss of an honest bucolic inheritance. The novels of D. H. Lawrence expressed in part such feelings.

All the time, of course, science was changing the way people lived and Britain’s technological eminence underpinned its military and industrial strength. The Second World War brought a new recognition, from government and public, of science’s importance and the war was a forcing house for many advances, of which nuclear physics is the most obvious. It was the war, too, which stimulated the manufacture of penicillin, discovered in 1929, on a large scale.

After the war, confidence in science reached a high point and scientists sometimes yielded to arrogance. System building would free people from insanitary slums. Nuclear power offered a cheap and trouble-free route to universal electricity and prosperity. New technology, the white heat of which propelled Harold Wilson to electoral victory in 1964, would transform our industrial future and give us an exit from industrial decline. The green revolution offered the poor world freedom from hunger.

All these hopes have proved false, though that is not necessarily the fault of scientists. The public housing boom produced its own disasters. The nuclear industry has faltered on a combination of unforeseen cost, contamination and human incompetence culminating in Chernobyl and concern about the impact on health of long-term low-level radiation.

The new technologies have allowed competitors rapidly to undermine the industrial dominance of the old powers. The green revolution has been negated by political corruption: in the Third World the few rich have grown richer and the poor have grown much poorer. Desiccation, hunger, and Aids have spread across Africa.

The contemporary dislike of science to some degree, therefore, reflects a misdirected political and popular disillusion. The quick fixes that science seemed to offer are found not to work. The green political movement has arisen and, beside it, a new strain of mysticism. This is especially marked in England. With its attacks on science are carried echoes of the old Darwinian controversies.

Science continues to offer a challenge to religion. Developing theories about the creation of the Universe form one part of the threat. Another consists of medical discoveries, particularly those in genetics, which allow people increasing choice about life and death. These produce ethical dilemmas so difficult that politicians will have to regulate them rather than leave them to individual and professional conscience or the teaching of the Churches.

The high salience of abortion as a political issue in the US and parts of Britain is a sign of things to come. Here in Scotland the Roman Catholic Church tacitly accepts that its teaching on contraception cannot be made to stick but adheres unyieldingly to its doctrine on abortion.

The new mysticism is, I also think, connected to the wave of English nationalism which is one of the forces retarding political and social progress in Europe. It is a hangover from the eighties, which saw the New Right’s advent to political power and the rise of fogeyism among younger intellectuals. Their unpleasant mixture of snobbism and racism is still paraded elegantly each week in The Spectator. They write well but that is their only admirable quality.

On Thursday night ITN trotted out a Tory backwoodsman to denounce the rise in the German domestic interest rate as ”nationalist” and ”selfish”, a curious charge to throw at a nation that has suffered so grievously from inflation in the past. Such English nationalism is a response to political and economic decline, reflecting a search for scapegoats. Germans, Eurocrats, and scientists are among them. Scots also have their place in the demonology, which helps to explain the intensity with which this class dislikes Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times.

Neil acquired a new place in my affections after a scurrilous and supercilious attack on him in The Spectator by Charles Moore. This attack was founded on the allegation that Neil, like many Scots, had a curiously lopsided face. My new affection for Neil is constrained by the reflection that he, an exile, has led the fashionable wave of Jock-bashing in London with an enthusiasm unequalled by any Englishman.

Science is in and out of the headlines. The Independent recently led, amiably but rather eccentrically, with a new theory of the Creation. But on the whole there is a lack of good popular scientific writing.

One of my dinner companions this week recalled J. B. S. Haldane, the great British genetic scientist (the brother of Naomi Mitchison) who died in 1964. He was a dedicated populariser of science and his column in the Daily Worker has never been surpassed as a model of the form. He was a committed Marxist but broke with the Communist Party when he was ordered, on the authority of Stalin, to subscribe to the theories of the Russian scientist Lysenko, who argued that acquired characteristics could be genetically inherited.

As far as I am aware, no eminent British scientist conducts a popular newspaper column. There is a contemporary scientific snobbism that would forbid it. In any case the public is weary of reading of ”breakthroughs” that turn out to be false dawns. What we get instead are tired rehashes of articles in scholarly journals.

Yet our contemporary industrial decline must be connected to our difficulty with science, or perhaps it is because we have, in attempting to retain our position as a military power, locked many of our scientists up in the military-industrial complex. Professor Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argues that the decline of both America and Britain can be traced to their military responsibilities; the rise of Japan and Germany since the war is the converse of that argument.

This week I watched hundreds of young scientists and engineers graduate at Edinburgh University. Most, I was told, have jobs to go to. Environment-related industries, such as water, are booming, and there is a healthy demand for scientists to work in them.

How we exploit our academic excellence in science holds the key to the future prosperity of us all because our persistent failure to apply discoveries in an economically useful way has been a cause of our decline. But these young scientists will not succeed unless we can find some better ways of applying their talents and exporting the fruits of their labour.