Science versus spoon-benders

I didn’t much like science at school. It was my brother who took things to bits, not me. Mathematics was the worst, and afterwards an almost lifelong phobia. Physics was almost as bad as Maths. Chemistry was only interesting when something exploded. Biology seemed designed specifically to put me off my lunch. Science for me was just another cross to bear in a Christian school.

Fortunately we find ways of justifying our little ignorances to ourselves. I accepted the ancient and venerable “two brains” theory of learning, according to which you either have a scientific brain or an artistic brain. There was no point trying to learn science if you didn’t have “that sort of brain”, and anyway it was better not to have “that sort of brain” because then we wouldn’t be us, and goodness but weren’t we interesting people! We were all artists in those days, naturally, and everyone knew that scientists had no imagination and no creative talent. Apart from Tom Lehrer, the singing mathematician, that is, but we’d allow them one. We decided that science was clever the way a performing poodle is clever, good at a few tricks but not really genteel company for dinner. And this wasn’t just my snobbery. Post-war Britain just couldn’t seem to turn out scientists, its very culture was against it. Nobody wanted to do science because it was work as in “manual work” not as in “work of art”. Everyone in the sixties wanted to be a beat poet, even the snotty little kids like me. Harold Wilson tried to do something about the huge bias in education towards the Humanities (the very name suggested that scientists were inhuman). Britain was up to its shins in philosophers and therapists, and no-one to mend the roof or rewire the sitting-room. My local LETS scheme is still the same today. But while Wilson talked thrillingly of the “white heat of technology”, everyone continued to regard science as a good thing for someone else to learn, and his new science-oriented Polytechnics turned out to be dustbin colleges for those who couldn’t get into a real University.

Was god an astronaut?
In my late teens Britain was swept by a “revolutionary” new theory, propounded by a best-selling author, to the effect that God was an astronaut. In book-after-book the theory expanded, multiplied, made ever larger claims and sold ever more copies. Everyone, it seemed, had read these books. Everyone, it seemed was talking about them. Conventional science, astonishingly, was silent.

Like the excellent scientist I was, I ignored the text, looked at the pictures, read the captions and the blurb on the back cover, and concluded that it must all be true. He’d gone to a lot of trouble after all, so he must know what he’s talking about. The phrase “don’t believe everything you read” came back to me, but really, how was one to tell? Even supposing I read every word properly, how would I know whether it was right or not? Who was I to criticise? You needed to be a scientist to criticise.

Eventually, at last, it had to happen. The scientific community wearily responded. The BBC flagship science programme Horizon finally dealt with Erik von Daniken’s theory. In fact it destroyed his case so comprehensively that even I, the eminent believer, had to laugh out loud. I’d been had, big time, and so had everyone else. Maybe I should have been annoyed at having my time wasted, or being made a fool of, but I wasn’t. We can forgive any sin if it’s entertaining.

It made me think of other times when I’d been conned, or baffled, usually both, by some fantastic claim. Uri Geller, the mind-control and spoon-bender, had me and my friends stroking teaspoons. We read assiduously the Arnall Bloxham tape transcripts of people regressing into past lives, serialised prominently in that most august periodical the Sunday Times, and were astounded when Bloxham admitted he’d cheated. At school we tried using Ouija boards to try to get in a quick communication with the hereafter before Afternoon bell. After much tumbler wrestling we got a name, Bill, and a date, 1780, and we went around in awe for a week. I didn’t think of myself as gullible, or even ignorant. After all, the world was an amazing place and anything was possible. I could criticise a poem but not a proposition. School didn’t arm me for that, despite the pickled frogs and the fizzing chemicals.

“Scientific Socialists”
By the time I encountered the Socialist Party I had already learned how to criticise society for myself, and I understood the importance of reason, but I was nevertheless startled by the party’s description of their “scientific socialism”. I envisaged a whole population in lab coats. A scientific socialist to me was a party member who knew the Periodic Table. But it was explained to me that it was the “method” that was “scientific”, not the membership. This meant nothing to me. They weren’t saying simply that the case for socialism was a logical one. It was more than that. Any stupid idea can be expressed in logical terms. What was “scientific” was not so much the argument itself but the means by which the argument was first thought out, the habitual mode of thinking of the individual. And the scientific method which socialists follow is both open-minded and sceptical, willing to embrace or drop an idea depending on the evidence, willing to change the theory if the evidence demands it. Carl Sagan described it well:

“Science is generated by and devoted to free enquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge.”

Those who criticise our rejection of religious beliefs do not perhaps grasp this “scientific” nature of the case for socialism, that it is rooted in the real world of hard facts and reliable evidence, and so must people be if the world is to see any real progress. But we don’t particularly have it in for the God squad, because they’re not the only mystery merchants out there spreading fog and confusion wherever they go. There is a plethora of pseudo-sciences to choose from if virgin births and original sin are a bit hard to take and Buddha is uncool. In my area recently there was a spate of UFO sightings, and the local press had a fun-filled week out of it. Judging by the number of sightings, I should have been abducted for experiments long since, with the rest of the town. No aliens have called, however. They probably watched one episode of Eastenders and decided not to bother with homo sapiens.

According to a report in Cultural Trends, in the past five years the market for “new age” and occult books has grown by 75 percent. As Catherine Bennett observed in the Guardian a while ago:

“neither incoherence, nor ignorance, nor overwhelming implausibility is any impediment to publication. These books are not going to face scholarly competition, but sell in a dedicated drivel department, along with feng shui, astrology [etc]” (31 October 1998).

She deliciously strips bare the pretensions of one particularly awful offering from Channel 4, called Quest for A Lost Civilisation. Graham Hancock, the best-selling writer, is firmly in the von Daniken tradition:

“Hancock’s principal strategy is to exploit his readers’ ignorance, dazzling them with irrelevant sums, flourishing spurious connections . . . He asks big questions, rushing on before you realize he hasn’t answered them.”

She concludes, correctly, that publishers don’t give a damn about truth so long as they sell books, and attacks the scientists who, by remaining “mute with distaste” actually do the von Danikens a big favour. And she is right. Very few scientists seem worried about what the rest of us believe. Undoubtedly, scientists have themselves to blame if nobody understands what they’re doing. In increasing desperation, Horizon has devoted no less than three programmes in the past year to unravelling Hancock’s nonsense, such is the demand for fake science in a fantasy-filled world. Yet still scientists seem to think they can ignore reality, rather like Archimedes thought he could rudely ignore the Roman sergeant with the drawn sword.

Common sense rules
But it’s not all their fault, and it wouldn’t kill us to be a little more scientific in our thinking when considering the world around us. Surprisingly, it’s not that difficult, if one observes a few basic rules, most of which are common sense. That these rules can be applied to politics as much as science will be illustrated in the course of description. This list is probably not exhaustive, (10 seems a suspiciously round number, for one thing) and I invite readers to send in their own suggestions.

1. First of all, don’t believe a complicated explanation if a simpler one will do.
This rule, known as Occam’s Razor, would really dismiss von Daniken instantly. After all, it is simpler, and fits all the facts, to believe that astronauts did not land on Earth in prehistory than to believe that they did. Lack of hard evidence for UFOs can be, and often is, enthusiastically ascribed to a huge government cover-up, but conversely, and more simply, it could be ascribed to the fact that UFOs don’t exist. In politics too, conspiracy theories are seldom the simplest explanation for anything, even if they appeal to some people’s penchant for paranoia.

2. A second rule would be: never believe anyone who will profit by lying.
This lets out every politician, I fear, as well as best-selling authors. By the same token, if one applies this rule to the Socialist Party, which has no plans to take power for itself now or in the future, its statements are automatically rendered more reliable than those of Trotskyist groups with a vested interest in being leaders. That doesn’t mean we’re always right, just that we have no particular reason to lie about it.

3. Exceptions don’t prove rules, despite the saying, they break them.
The term “prove” in this expression is related to the Italian “provare” which means “test” or “try out”, which explains how this sensible maxim has acquired a modern, nonsensical meaning. As an illustration of this rule, if some societies are known to be peaceful, it destroys the claim that humans are basically aggressive and warlike. If a majority of people are poor in capitalism, it destroys the claim that capitalism is in the common interest or that it is a “good provider”.

4. Even if the structure is logical, the basic assumptions may not be.
As an example, capitalism is a supremely logical structure, based on the assumption that resources are limited but wants are unlimited. When one examines this assumption critically there appears no justification for it at all, and the entire structure sinks like a Monty Python castle built on a swamp

5. Beware of the sleight-of-hand known as special pleading, which is essentially a sales tactic.
Emotive arguments are a good example of this, and very common in politics, where it is hard not to be emotional sometimes. I recall a woman defending the Peace Camp at Greenham Common thus: “Something that feels so good just can’t be wrong.”

6. Don’t be bamboozled or “blinded by science”.
Carl Sagan relates how, when discussing with an Egyptologist the theories of Velikovsky (who had been excitedly compared to Darwin and Einstein by the popular press), he had remarked that the ancient history looked impressive whereas the physics was nonsense, whereupon the Egyptologist responded in surprise that he had thought precisely the reverse. Even scientists can temporarily be taken in. Anything emanating from government experts, especially economists, needs to be treated with caution.

7. An idea is not a valid theory unless a way exists of disproving it (falsification).
Hence, the argument that God exists is not a valid theory, whereas you can disprove the case for socialism by showing, for example, how material abundance is impossible to achieve.

8. A test result is not valid until and unless it can be recreated.
One recent sensation was the achievement of “cold fusion”, another was the transmission of light at 4.7 times the speed of light. Neither have been successfully repeated. Governments which claim economic success once are certainly just lucky, and are unable to repeat this success later, when conditions have altered.

9. A theory which cannot predict anything is worthless.
If the Socialist Party’s analysis was incorrect, its predictions would also be. However, we have a surprisingly good hit rate over the past 100 years.

10. The most obvious (but most often broken) rule is that if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the theory.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know that, but you need to think like a scientist to stick to it.

Will reason win?
Socialists try to apply these rules to society, and expect to have them applied to their own case. Perhaps we are not always as rigorous as we should be. Perhaps you aren’t either. So if you think you can disprove all, or part, or a bit of our case, go right ahead. We’ll listen. If you find a flaw we’ll have to change our ideas, and if, by the same token, we find a flaw in your thinking, you’ll have to change yours. That is how the scientific method works. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever fall for a con, or make a mistake, but it makes it much less likely.

The world is as full of superstition and silly ideas as it was in the Middle Ages, but it is far richer in knowledge. Whether the scientific method prevails in the future is open to question, for it has failed in the past to rescue societies from decline, and the ideology of capitalism is reinforced constantly by a battery of propaganda and mystification that are a perpetual obstacle to clear thinking. The battle is ongoing, and will continue in this new century, and reason will either win or it won’t. The last word ought to go to that supremely humanitarian scientist and visionary, the late Carl Sagan:

“Humans have evolved gregariously. We delight in each other’s company; we care for one another. We cooperate. Altruism is built into us. We have brilliantly deciphered some of the patterns of Nature. We have sufficient motivation to work together and the ability to figure out how to do it. If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies?”


Leave a Reply