Mugged by the Science Mafia

. . . Material World Revisited (co-written with Rosi Thornton)


Science is the lens through which we see our world. In theory, of course, it’s a flawless, smear-free lens, showing us the true nature of the universe , providing the same view through the lens regardless of who is looking.

For most of the 20th century, British scientists were discouraged from interacting with industry, the concern being that such connections would compromise the integrity of science, persuading scientists to focus on corporate schemes rather than on more insightful scientific questions. Such academic independence – or lack of – is an indicator of our broader freedoms.

In the last decade or so, British science has become more and more tailored to meet the profits of industry, leading to a narrowing of scientific horizons , as researchers chase specific technological results, rather than broader speculative ventures which have more potential for creativity and innovation. Our view through the lens of science is becoming more and more coloured by who is looking through it.

As alluded to very recently by Peter Grehan, during my apperance on BBC Radio 4’s Material World last Thursday (August 11), a free and rather open debate on the innovative relationship between science and science fiction was promptly mugged by the Science Mafia.

Professor Lewis Walpert (the Mugger), it seems, is ‘not keen on science fiction’. For, Walpert believes, ‘science fiction has done science a terrible injury’. His evidence? Frankenstein and Brave New World , apparently.

This is another example of an unfortunate run-in with the ideology of scientism – the reductionist belief in the omnipotence of science. When threatened, the Science Mafia coalesces into offensive groups that emerge from corporate-funded labs to crush the mutinous enemy. The enemy in the case of scientism can be anyone from another scientist to, more often than not, the general public.

Science only works as long as we accept that at any point new evidence may require us to revise our beliefs ; knowledge must be considered provisional, with methods and conclusions at all times open to the critical scrutiny not only of the researchers conducting the work, but also of the community at large.

In practice however, many scientists reject that anyone outside their field knows enough to be critical. Science fiction often intends to challenge such attitudes; instead, it aims to empower and encourage readers to feel that they can have an opinion, and have a right – and a need – to voice their opinion.

Scientism haunts conventional approaches to science.

No other subject is taught in such a vacuum as science. It would be considered ridiculous to teach history, literature, or art history, for example, without placing the subject in an evolutionary context. But despite the development of science being subject to exactly the same quirks of history, chance – mistakes even – as any other discipline, it is taught as an apolitical, ahistorical entity; ‘facts’ which just ‘are’, popping into existence without a development of thought or method, tackling problems entirely unrelated to any social context, its practitioners automatons with no agenda, bias or outside influence. This is patently absurd. And, maybe more pertinently, by ignoring the processes that lead to discoveries, we remove all that makes a subject interesting; remove relevance and meaning; remove a narrative by which to learn and reflect.

So perhaps it’s time for a new type of science, one that challenges science’s alleged impartiality and objectivity. One that understands that, in the genome era, we must all have an informed opinion about the social, ethical and political questions posed by science.

It’s time for a new revolution in science.



    August 12, 2005

    Expect to receive fish wrapped in the “New Scientist”: and an offer you cann’t refuse sometime soon…

    Pete Grehan

    August 12, 2005

    I wonder if it would be possible to arrange a ‘rematch’ with Professor Lewis Walpert (if that doesn’t give too much credit to the mugging in question) with the producers of the Materila World? Perhaps they might like a good barney on their programe?


    August 12, 2005

    Funny you should say that, Peter; I’ve suggested the very same to
    the producers myself. We’ll see what they say.

    In the meantime I understand Walpert apologised after the
    programme. That’s all very well; the deliberate damage was
    already done.

    On a more positive note I’ve invited Dr Karen N?? Mheallaigh to
    speak at Glamorgan, and she’s pleased to accept.


    August 12, 2005

    Ah, but Science Fiction HAS hurt science. We’re not talking about Golden Era “wouldn’t it be cool if” science fiction here, we’re talking about what’s popular these days.

    And popular, it seems, has become the same as populist. When people talk in worried, indignant tones about the evils of cloning and genetic mutants, they aren’t thinking of anything that is scientific fact or reality. They are thinking of all the monsters they’ve seen in SF movies. When scientists speak of nanotechnology and its benefits, people hear about tiny little EVIL robots in their bloodstream, a new kind of disease. When artificial intelligence is mentioned, people think “Terminator” and “War Games”. Hell, it’s become such a cliche that a movie doesn’t need to explain it any more: If a manchine obtains self-awareness because its computer is too clever, OBVIOUSLY it’s going to try and wipe out mankind. After all, self-awareness comes with the desire to kill us, right? Terminator, Matrix, Stealth even…

    Science Fiction (especially in movies) sells best in the same way that tabloids sell best: When there’s bad news to report, fear and hate to spread. And so, rather than being an educational tool, it has become the primary weapon against science these days.

    Create a scientific miracle, a dinosaur, and it’ll eat you. Build a robot, and it’ll do kung-fu and smash you to bits with its metal limbs. A clever computer? Just contemplating how best to rid itself of its users, or enslave them and use them as batteries. GM foods? A plague of plants. Gene therapy? Obviously evil, will lead to mutation. Organ transplants? Serial killer donors and haunted inner organs. The Human Genome project? Gattaca, here we come. Cloning? Haunted, evil clones! (Godsend, anyone?)

    And the worst thing is, this is almost natural. All stories are about conflict. So, a SF story can have three modes of conflict: Either the conflict is externally caused (eg by aliens) and the science is the weapon against it, or the science setting is incidental to the conflict (in which case it could just as well be set in our time), or the science is part of the problem – either by enabling the conflict to take place in the first place (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example), or by being the antagonist.

    When was the last time someone produced a successful SF movie that displayed science in a positive, optimistic light, while educating the public about some aspect of it? All I can think of is Independence Day, and that’s not a very nice thought at all…

    Movies are the most far-reaching science fiction, and thus the most opinion forming among the public. I can see why scientists distrust it. Science Fiction is being used to scare the public of scientific progress and research.

    Pete Grehan

    August 12, 2005

    I think science fiction is doing what it has always done, that is reflecting the anxieties people have about science and the way it leads us into unknown territory.

    Just as early maps had areas labelled, ???Here be Dragons???, so our maps of the possible futures are labelled with monsters. The films you mention are the modern equivalent of the ???Here be Dragons??? label, and rightly or wrongly express a lack of confidence in science that has always been there (Jonathan Swift???s Gulliver???s Travels and Mary Shelly???s Frankenstein being two early examples).

    This lack of confidence has been increased by developments such as Nuclear Weapons and other WMDs, pollution, global warming (still denied by a oil sponsored American administration) and corporate, profit driven, science rather than independent science. These are the factors that do ???Science No Favours??? rather than science fiction films that reflect these anxieties.

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