‘Science is sexy’. Another march in London, with colourful placards and simplistic slogans neatly dividing society into good and bad. The bright-eyed demonstrators signal their virtue, their tolerance and superior intellect. Instead of facts, we traditionalists have blind faith; instead of working towards a better world, we patriots want to pull up the drawbridge and return to a previous era. This dichotomising is not only divisive; it is blatantly hypocritical.
In The Guardian, Anne Perkins maintained that newspaper’s attribution of shocking electoral reverses to ‘fake news’ and fact-free populism. ‘Scientists are armed with truth’, she asserted. How the intellectual Left has turned! After all the postmodern bluster since the 1960s against scientific hegemony, concrete fact is now seen as the bedrock of progressive ideology. Social science departments, economists and feminists have learned to deploy hard numerical evidence to silence opponents and demand public money to feed their politically-motivated projects.
The hard Left has always diverted scientific enterprise to putting its principles into practice. Most notoriously, the Soviet Union lionised the charlatan Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Western genetics to advance a nurture-over-nature absolutism in tune with Marxist-Leninist thought. Thousands of biologists were dismissed from their institutes, enabling the new orthodoxy to flourish. Lysenko believed, for example, that birch trees could learn not to compete with each other but to grow in harmony. Placed in charge of maize production, his agronomic master plan was a total failure, causing mass starvation. But the communists were not alone in trusting bad science. Millions of sub-Saharan African villagers suffered the consequences of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which led to the banning of DDT. Smug environmentalists patted themselves on the back while poor children died unnecessarily.
Nothing is more controversial in science than the attempted betterment of humankind. Eugenics may be offensive to the intelligentsia, but it continues by other names. Abortion for a growing list of actual and potential abnormalities, including cleft palate, is surely a manipulation of human stock. And as often demonstrated, it is the Left that is most active in attempting to overrule the inconveniences of nature. Social conservatives are wary of euthanasia, while atheist scholars push for assisted suicide. Genetic design excites Dawkins and Winston, but troubles those who fear others playing God. Science offers tremendous benefits, yet it merely tells us what we can do, not what we should do.
But the Left does not really want a carte blanche for scientists. The wrong type of knowledge and the wrong face of expert attract vociferous and sometimes violent reaction, as evolutionary biologist E O Wilson and sociologist Charles Murray would attest. Scientists who challenge the manmade global warming dogma are marginalised, while those guilty of ‘cooking the books’ of meteorological data have untarnished status in the climate change community. Many of the leading lights have little scientific qualification, such as Al Gore or that bloke who got bored of running the Indian railways.
Undoubtedly, science has become highly politicised. Evidence-based policy is the mantra, but in reality it is often policy-based evidence. When the government’s chief medical officer reduced the guidelines for alcohol intake in men to 14 units, but kept the same amount for women, this was not based on objective information but on moral zealotry. Medical advances have made premature babies viable at 23 weeks, but this is not accepted as rationale for reducing the time limit for abortion. Diesel cars were known to be more polluting than petrol engines, but they were promoted because of a narrow imperative to reduce carbon emissions.
As a human endeavour, science cannot be neutral. Vested interests are lurking in every research programme. Institutional bias abounds, from the priorities of funding bodies to academic career prospects. Consider a research worker position for a study of gender pay differences: inevitably the successful candidate would already be in tune with the purposes of the research. Lots of data are earnestly collected for studies which will merely confirm preconceived ideas of the lead investigators. Lies, damned lies or statistics is not too much of a slur: evidence is sometimes cherry-picked and then uncritically accepted as ‘truth’.
The liberal-Left elite, in seeking to claim science as a bulwark against an ignorant public, must not be allowed to kidnap empirical enquiry or the genuine enlightenment values on which this is founded. The likes of The Guardian and Anne Perkins could be taken more seriously if they issued a belated apology for the disgraceful treatment of Nobel Prize biochemist Tim Hunt.
Dr Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health and Roger Watson is Professor of Nursing at the University of Hull