How scientific are scientists?
What is Andrew Marr, a well-known political commentator, doing presenting a BBC2 science programme about Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’? Evidently, having used up their stock of one biologist the previous month when they trundled David Attenborough out of retirement, the BBC are now reduced to pilfering from the politics office. The first thing our ex-Presbyterian Andy does in his new role of science correspondent is issue a dire warning that we shouldn’t treat Darwin as a deity or Darwinism as a religion (The Danger of Worshipping Darwin, BBC Online, 5 March).
Socialists have heard this sort of criticism before, from people who equate any system of organised thought with religion, in wilful disregard of the difference between organised thought and organised fantasy. Scientists do have their heroes, but they don’t worship them as infallible gurus because it is recognised that argument from authority is inferior to argument from evidence. Socialists take the same view of Marx and other revolutionary thinkers.
It’s a pity Marr couldn’t direct his uncalled-for advice where it might do some good – at real rather than imaginary religious folly. Someone who does think he’s an infallible guru has just lately been going round Africa telling the locals that wearing condoms will make their AIDS problem worse, not better (BBC Online, 18 March). Yes folks, the Pope pulls another blinder, advocating ‘fidelity and abstinence’, straight after criticising his own US division for last year’s record-busting 800 sex-abuse cases, which cost the Catholic Church $436m in 2008 (BBC Online, 14 March). Mind you, this is the guru who told us recently that Darwinian evolution is consistent with the book of Genesis.
Socialists are opposed to all religious superstitions but don’t often trouble to condemn them because their advocates seem to do that better themselves. In Tanzania, the latest get-rich-quick scheme is to round up albino humans, murder them, cut them up, and sell their body parts as magic potions promising to make the owner wealthy. Meanwhile in South Africa there is an epidemic of what is called ‘corrective rape’, where lesbian women are gang-raped in order to make them ‘girls’ again. The fact that the women are often murdered afterwards suggests the rapists are not too interested in the ‘corrective’ aspect of it all. Unless they’re thinking of the afterlife.
Someone else keen to send women to an early afterlife is Samira Jassim, aka ‘the Mother of Believers’, who tells us how she recruited 80 female Iraqi suicide-bombers. Her clever trick was to have the women raped by her pious and devout male assistants and then tell the victims they would never get into heaven unless they committed a ‘purifying act’ to expunge their ‘shame’. What this shows is not only the folly of ignorant belief and the despicable manipulation that ‘gurus’ can exercise, but also that these ‘gurus’ don’t believe this hokum themselves. It has often been observed that the higher one goes in any religious organisation, the less belief there is.
Perhaps, at bottom, religious people don’t really believe, but they force themselves to pretend to. There are signs that this is the case. One piece of evidence was the huge outpouring of obviously genuine grief among Catholics when the last pope shuffled off his mortal coil. Since, according to doctrine, he had gone off to sit on the right hand of God and enjoy perfect bliss, one might have expected them to celebrate. But they don’t, and in fact new research suggests they fight against death harder than non-believers, demanding every treatment and medication in the book, even when prolonging the agony actually increases their misery (Pious ‘fight death the hardest’, BBC Online, 17 March). Again, this is the opposite of what you’d expect if religion was giving these people any real comfort. It seems that the Pope and his ilk aren’t very keen to check out themselves, although they’re often happy enough to speed other people on their way, through murder or murderously bad advice.
So how does Andrew Marr have the effrontery to equate science with religion? It seems utterly daft. But does that mean science is a noble endeavour and a paragon of value-free rationality?
One man who doesn’t think so is the physicist Lee Smolin. He is scathing about the ‘sociology’ of the science community, which he invokes to explain why physics has languished for the last thirty years in the doldrums of unverifiable string theory rather than investigating any more promising avenues of thought: ‘Good ideas are not taken seriously enough when they come from people of low status in the academic world; conversely, the ideas of high-status people are often taken too seriously’ (The Trouble With Physics, Allen Lane, 2006). For Smolin, the old-boy culture of risk-averse conservatism is so strong that it has brought physics to a crisis where one must ask fundamental questions about what science is.
It is a shame that Smolin, following Popper, carelessly brackets ‘Marxism’ with witchcraft and Intelligent Design. He would be surprised to know that socialist theory (rather than the state-capitalist parodies of North Korea etc that he has in mind) actually accords very well with the principles of scientific enquiry he himself sets out, and that socialists could help to contextualise the problems besetting physics.
Smolin points out that there are more scientists working today than in the whole history of science, however he doesn’t consider that many of them are doing things which are utterly useless or downright destructive because science, like any industry, has to operate within the priorities and limitations dictated by the capitalist system. He recognises that the scientific method suffers because science is organised hierarchically, but doesn’t see that the same criticism can be applied to all branches of human activity. He demands democratisation and diversity in physics as if physics alone is the problem and these things are already established in other fields.
What sets science apart from religion is not that it works perfectly, but that it has the capability to be self-correcting. This is also the crucial distinction between capitalism, which is unable to correct its own suicidal blunders because it is in thrall to uncontrollable economic laws serving a powerful elite, and non-market, non-hierarchical socialism, which has no such agenda and which can therefore collectively determine the best course of action based on the available evidence.