Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Wilson in Wonderland

"It is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts." So wrote the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, explaining the idiosyncratic reasoning process that led them to develop their bonkers, but highly lucrative, theory about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Priory of Sion (the one that proved so inspirational to Dan Brown that they sued him, unsuccessfully, for plagiarism). For them, the trouble with experts - sorry, "experts" - was that they stick to narrow specialisms, seldom troubling themselves of the exciting possibilities that can arise when you treat facts like "pebbles dropped into the pool of history".

A similar intuition seems to lie behind AN Wilson's latest attack on science, which graces the pages of today's Daily Mail (prompted, needless to say, by Professor David Nutt's sacking as the government's chief drugs adviser). For Wilson, scientists are dull, Gradgrindian creatures, "unimaginative", unable to see that their work has an impact outside their ivory towers, and that therefore they have a responsibility to Be Careful. "The trouble with a 'scientific' argument," he writes, placing the word in inverted commas as though handling it with a pair of tongs to preserve himself from contamination, "is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts." Whereas of course there are other things to consider - like the horrible possibility that someone might draw a conclusion from the "empirical facts" (are there any other kind?) that might be socially or politically inconvenient, or lead in a direction of which Wilson personally disapproves.

It may well be true, Wilson is prepared to admit, that "if you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who've died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill" - we're talking hundreds of thousands on one side, after all, versus a couple of dozen on the other - but such considerations scarcely matter in the "sink estates" where "whole communities" are devastated by "casual drug abuse". Wouldn't you prefer your teenage son to have a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape than drop an E picked up on some street corner from God knows who? AN Wilson would. Whether he'd prefer his teenage daughter to down several glasses of vodka and pass out on the street after shagging a total stranger and then throwing up, when the alternative is to spend a pleasant evening in a club with a small tablet of chemical assistance, he doesn't inform us. Perhaps he doesn't know. Or perhaps he just doesn't want to think about it.

But then there are a lot of things that Wilson doesn't want to think about, or doesn't want other people to think, because it might be bad for them. His attitude is like that of the bishop's wife whose reaction on hearing about Darwin's theory was to "pray that it is not true; but if it is, pray that it does not become generally known." Pure science, for Wilson, is inherently dangerous. You end up in Nazi Germany:

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

I am not suggesting that any British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia. But I see the same habit of mind at work in Professor Nutt and his colleagues as made those mad scientists of the 20th century think they were above the moral law which governs the rest of us mortals.

That's right, old Adolf was only letting the scientists do what they wanted (well, some scientists: not the Jewish ones, obviously). He wasn't leaning on them to agree with him about the master-race or Hans Horbiger's loopy World Ice Theory, not at all. Actually, Mr Wilson, the "facts" tend to suggest that Hitler was only interested in scientists who were prepared to work in the cause of Nazi ideology, or who would help him build bigger, more destructive bombs. But perhaps I too am guilty of sticking to "empirical facts" when I could be deploying the evidence in a more creative, intuitive manner.

Wilson's argument - sorry, "argument" - has two main points, neither remotely original (for a good refutation, see chapters eight and nine of Lewis Wolpert's 1992 book The Unnatural Nature of Science). One is Pandora's Box - that the pursuit of knowledge without moral constraints leads to unwelcome consequences. The abuse of science in Nazi Germany is the most commonly cited example of this, of course, but far from the only one. Today, it's most commonly heard in relation to genetics: "designer babies" and so on. But it's hard to think of any clear examples of such fears coming to pass - apart perhaps from nuclear weapons, which is a biggie I admit. The Nazi scientists mentioned by Wilson did indeed do evil things, and did so at the behest of a regime whose ideology was influenced by a travesty of Darwinian natural selection. But their race science was wrong; it relied upon a distortion of the evidence - and what discredited it in the end was new and better science.

And it need hardly be said that Wilson displays a quite stunning ignorance of the deep and wide-ranging debates that go on every day between scientists, not just about questions of procedure (even slightly controversial research has to meet rigorous ethical criteria) but about the implications of research. Their moral responsibility weighs much more heavily on scientists than it often appears to on journalists, many of whom are quite happy to cut ethical corners in pursuit of a good story. But then a good many of Wilson's charges against science - self-importance, trying to dictate government policy, refusal to apologise for mistakes, demonising anyone who disagrees with them - are far more accurate as criticisms of the popular press.

The other suggestion is that scientists are arrogant: a recurrent theme among writers (Bryan Appleyard is a persistent offender) who seem unable to get over the fact that the geeks in white coats know more than they do. Wilson levels the charge directly at Professor David Nutt. Nutt was a "difficult customer", he says, who was "not content simply to give advice". He wanted to "dictate" to the government, and when it "refused to recognise his infallibility" he denouned the country's law on drugs. And now Nutt has been sacked, "the scientific establishment is in an uproar of self-pity and self-importance." This is part of a wider phenomenon, thinks Wilson. He admits that it would be "folly to deny that we all owe a vast debt to scientific discoveries" and claims that he doesn't want to "suppress scientific inquiry". However, he warns of "an increasing presumption among many intelligent and good-hearted people that science is an absolute truth, that its methods of arriving at the truth are infallible and that scientists must be listened to at all times." And (another unoriginal thought) science is really just the modern religion:

The worship of science is the great superstition of our age. The scientific adviser speaks and we are all supposed to believe him, whether he is promoting crops genetically modified to withstand huge doses of poisonous weedkillers and pesticides, or tampering with the origin of human life itself in so-called stem cell research.

Those who dare question scientists are demonised for their irrationality. Global warming may or may not be a certainty, but anyone who queries it has his sanity questioned. Cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression - which is the argument now being used by Nutt and pals against the Home Secretary.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression.

Can you guess what's coming next? We've had the Nazis, so it must be time for... yes, it's those old Iberian heretic-burners:

Science rules - and it does so with just as much energy as the old Spanish Inquisition that refused to allow any creed other than Catholicism, and with the Inquisition's need to distort arguments and control the brains of men and women who might otherwise think for themselves.

I seem to recall there was some use of torture and burning at the stake, too. But that's just a trivial detail. The important point is that these scientists should know their place. Which is safely hidden away in the labs, doing what they're told and shutting up unless someone important asks them a question. They're all very well in their way - and they gave us cars and computers, for which even AN Wilson seems to be grateful (actually, it was engineers who gave us cars and computers, but who cares?) - but the world is a much safer, and more civilised, place if all the major decisions are left in the hands of people who can "think for themselves", mainly arts graduates.

There's an obvious contradiction between Wilson's two complaints about science. The Pandora's Box argument assumes that the discoveries of science are true, but dangerous, which is why "empirical facts" are not enough and scientists should be restrained by law, or public opinion, or the Daily Mail, from pursuing their work to its logical conclusion. Their intense specialisation increases the danger, since they're too myopic to look further than their test tubes.

The Arrogant Scientist argument, by contrast, stresses the provisionality of science. This is something which most scientists happily admit, of course, and is the very thing that distinguishes science from, for example, religion. It is the chief glory of science that it can be wrong, that established theories can be overturned by new discoveries. But, paradoxically, it is what makes scientists vulnerable to their critics. If science can be wrong, if any scientific idea has ever been discredited (Nazi race science, for example) then it follows that these scientists don't really know anything, and it is therefore arrogant for them to claim that they do.

So they're damned either way. Either they're blindly following their "objective" knowledge, regardless of the impact their discoveries will have on ordinary people, or they're just pretending to know stuff, when in reality they know no more about their specialist field, which they may have been studying in immense detail for twenty or thirty years, than AN Wilson has managed to pick up after an afternoon spent surfing the Web. Actually, he gives a very good impression of someone whose knowledge of science derives solely from reading science stories in the Daily Mail.

Now I have a lot of time for AN Wilson. He can write, for one thing. He knows a great deal about the intellectual and cultural history of the 19th century. His account of The Victorians was masterly, as was God's Funeral, his study of the growth of scepticism in the 19th century. He has written a very fine biography of Tolstoy, and in another book had some very apposite things to say about St Paul. He would, I think, be the first to admit that there are academic scholars in all these fields who know more than he does, and on whose work his own more literary and discursive treatments depend. "A book such as this," he writes in the Foreword to The Victorians, "grows, not just from a few years of intensive research, but from a lifetime spent in the company of people who are expert in the subject." So why does he think he can dismiss science with a few airy generalities and a reference to the Nazis? Is it, perhaps, because he knows so little about the way science works that he has no idea of how little he actually knows?