My hope for 2021 is that all thinking people – including scientists – become more questioning and critical of science.
2020 has made a false god of science, not least here in the UK.
If we fail to temper science by our other kinds of knowledge, we are likely to return to the chaos and political experimentation of the last century. The 20th century began with La Belle Époque, and its over-enthusiastic embrace of science (until the lights went out in 1914). Not until the 1990s did Europe emerge from the ‘scientific atheism’ imposed by the socialist bloc on much of Europe, including half of Germany.
Today, science has become dependent on ‘Big Data’ made possible by the internet. These data are interrogated by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and used for everything from monitoring earth temperatures, to drug testing in sport, to weather and earthquake forecasting, to tracking underhand uses of science from fake drugs to novel nerve agents.
The world wide web itself was invented by scientists who needed to share huge data generated at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva.
The life sciences now also depend on Big Data. The Human Genome Project (HGP) – mapping of more than 3billion base pairs – could not have happened without the internet.
The completion of HGP in 2000 was announced with hype and fanfare by President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair, flanked by scientists. But almost nothing that Clinton, Blair and the scientists predicted 20 years ago is true. ‘The science’ has not delivered.
HGP has not, as Clinton promised, ‘revolutionised the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases’, and it has not had a ‘great impact on our lives’.
The American scientist Francis Collins, then head of HGP, and at Clinton’s side at the announcement in 2000, said: ‘Perhaps in another 15 or 20 years, you will see a complete transformation in therapeutic medicine.’
Today, life expectancy is decreasing in the USA as this study in 2019 suggests. No ‘transformation’ in medicine has, or will, reverse the trend. In fact prescription medicine is a leading cause of American deaths. Add to this fatalities caused by drug abuse and unnecessary surgery.
The moral of the story is: Beware of political leaders flanked by scientists.
What went wrong in 2000?
In a word: hubris. Clinton announced that genome mapping was knowledge about ‘how God created life’. In fact, we have since learned how very little we know about life.
Genomics has spawned other fields of ‘omics’, whose Big Data make HGP look puny. The hopes of 2000 are dashed: most serious disease cannot be attributed to a ‘faulty’ gene or gene mutation.
From 2012 to 2015, I worked as a technical writer in one of these new ‘omics’ fields: proteomics (for the Waters Corporation). It is worth briefly explaining here how proteomics came to be.
Before 2000, biology was dominated by ‘the central dogma of molecular biology’, which insisted that the genes at the centre of our every cell instruct the cell’s proteins (the main material in our cells) to ‘fold’ into their 3D structure, be it a fingernail, eye, organ, bone, skin, eyelashes . . . The central dogma insisted that our proteins only ‘listen’, i.e. that our genes instruct our proteins how to build or replenish, and that the flow of information is unidirectional. We now know that proteins ‘talk’. There is protein-to-protein networking throughout our whole body. And with many thousands of proteins in every cell, and trillions of cells in the human body, the data is impossible to map.
Holistic study of the sugars in our body – metabol-omics – has created similar data problems. Bill Clinton was wrong to suggest we have ‘insight into how God created life’. Victor Frankenstein’s hour has not yet come, thank heaven.
HGP was the death throes of the kind of scientific reductionism that had dominated biology since the late 19th century.
Interestingly, the most recent field of ‘omics’ is ‘phen-omics’, which is recognition of the obvious: the health of the human body, apart from diet and lifestyle, is subject to all kinds of phenomena that are external and environmental: air pollution, chemical pollution, birdsong, trees, music, noise, depressing ugliness, or conversely, beauty that gladdens the soul.
One of the external phenomena that impacts human health is religion. It is ‘scientific’ fact that those of us in the West who worship God are healthier than our coevals who attempt to find meaning in lesser things. Some honest atheists readily admit this, such as Bruce Sheiman, who writes in An Atheist Defends Religion:
‘Extensive empirical research has shown that religious affiliation of almost any kind is positively correlated with better mental health, measures of life satisfaction, and prosocial behaviours; which in turn are associated with enhanced physical well-being and healthy lifestyle practices; which are further related to enhanced quality of life and extended longevity’.
Time to pull up the floorboards and repair the philosophy
The philosopher Mary Midgley (1919–2018) compared philosophers to plumbers: both essential to civilisation, but whose need is generally ignored until the system goes wrong and we need to ascertain the source of the stink. Midgley was the scourge of Richard Dawkins and other figures of the scientific pretension that she called ‘scientism’.
Scientism has crept into all our major institutions, including the mainstream media. The BBC’s institutional contempt for Judeo-Christian religion, tradition, culture and Israel is blatant. Its undermining of this heritage through a kind of insidious cultural revolution is relentless.
The BBC elevated Dawkins – on his becoming ‘Professor for the Public Understanding of Science’ – to celebrity, promoting his ‘Darwinian view of life’ in a godless universe with ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’ (River Out of Eden). For Dawkins and the BBC, moral value is determined by man’s choice in an otherwise value-free world. But no civilisation could ever have been built on such hubris, and no civilisation can survive on it. This is the allegorical serpent of Eden saying: You can be as God.
What is science?
Philosopher Francis Bacon (d. 1626) envisioned a world run by scientists: enrobed fellows guiding society to truth. He coined the motto scientia potentia est, or ‘knowledge is power’, scientia being one of the three Latin classifications of knowledge. Followers of Bacon were known derogatorily as ‘scientists’. The word has stuck, and so has the extreme idea that scientists have the truth of human being.
Science, or scientia, is extremely dangerous if detached from sapientia (wisdom) and prudentia (vision). I hardly need give historical and contemporary examples.
As I wrote in my last piece for TCW, I believe that Covid-19 will naturally disappear as quickly as it came. When it does, let us rebuild things with science put back in its proper place.
Perhaps the restoration of our British sovereignty in the New Year will help. Providing we can replace Boris Johnson with a Conservative leader who knows what he or she is supposed to conserve, there is hope. In the famous words of Margaret Thatcher – scientist and the most overtly Christian Prime Minister since Gladstone – ‘you cannot build Jerusalem in Brussels’.