Of Leeds, life and religion in science

Yesterday, my grandmother passed away at the splendid age of 94. She was a committed Christian, and one of my strongest memories of her is the time when she took me to buy a Bible.

Her daughter – my mother – rebelled against her Christian upbringing. I remember being about 7 when my mother warned me off religion: one Sunday morning, I wanted to play football with my friends in the park, but found they were all going to Sunday School. I went home and asked if I could go too. I have a strong recollection of standing at the back door in my primrose yellow Leeds United away kit (1977/8 season) while my mother told me “you don’t want to get involved with all that”. But go if you want to. I did want to, and I went – in my football kit. I think I only went once, in the end – I found it dull.

During my early teenage years, though, my mother found God. She dragged me to church and people told me, with the best possible intentions, that I was going to hell and needed to join them on the path to heaven. Eventually I did – for more than 20 years.

It was shortly after I joined the church that my grandmother took me to buy that Bible (I still have it). She had been praying for this moment to come for my whole life, she told me. There was nothing sinister about it, nothing coercive. It was a significant, joyful moment of family bonding.

My grandmother believed in all the myths that Peter Atkins derides in his new book On Being. I was quite relieved at the weekend to see that it wasn’t just me that felt the book was rather hit and miss. In the Guardian , Steven Poole said it delivered “snide and pointless tirades against religion” and a claim to eventual decay and pointlessness that “oversteps the bounds of dispassionate scientific description”.

For my part, while some of Atkins’ writing is terrific, he wastes far too many pages of what is already a slim volume ripping various straw men to shreds. In my New Scientist review (paywall), I point out that “few of his readers will need persuading of the silliness of end-times myths or the lack of evidence for any kind of afterlife or eternal soul.”

My big problem with it is that, while sniping at religion is fun, it is scientifically dishonest. As Jesse Bering has pointed out in his excellent The God Instinct, people are naturally inclined to believe in unseen forces. There’s even good evolutionary reason to do so.

I don’t believe my grandmother’s life and outlook was any the worse for her Christian worldview. I never told her that I have given up trying to hold onto those beliefs in the light of science and scientific reasoning tells me to be true about the world. Why would I? There was nothing to be gained by either of us.

Some scientists do love to rail against those who are on the fence about the value of religion. I remember attending a conference about belief in 2006, where Steven Weinberg said he had a lot of Christian friends and wasn’t really bothered by that because, as he put it, “they don’t really believe what they say they believe.”

Some of the other panellists were almost offended by this attitude. Neil de Grasse Tyson expressed his outrage that a survey of members of the US National Academy of Sciences revealed that 85 per cent reject the notion of a ‘personal God’. He wanted to know why 15 per cent of ‘the most brilliant minds this nation has’ accept the idea of a personal God. ‘How come that number isn’t zero?’ he asked. (you can see the video here).

I mention this moment in Free Radicals, during my chapter on where creative scientific ideas come from. It comes after I point out that Michael Faraday, so celebrated by scientists, was a devout Sandemanian Christian – and not just on Sundays. His approach to science was deeply coloured by his religious views. And, fascinatingly, that was what enabled him to understand magnetic fields and the connection between electricity and magnetism before anyone else.

Atkins once said that you can’t be a real scientist ‘in the deepest sense of the word’ if you hold to religious views. To Atkins, religious belief and a scientific worldview are entirely ‘alien categories of knowledge.’ I just don’t agree. Contrary to what many people think, science requires creativity, and the evidence shows that creativity requires a wide array of sources to draw from.

While Andre Ampere laboured away with the mathematics –  to no avail – Faraday used his Biblical concepts of the Trinity and God permeating all of space to come up with his breakthroughs (the full account is in Geoffrey Cantor’s Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and scientist). While I might not believe what I used to, I do believe those beliefs held by my grandmother are not worthless. They have served useful purposes throughout human history – and that includes our scientific age.


Shhh! (Or why I love a library)

When you are researching a book, the internet is invaluable because a search can point you to specific sources. But that’s when a good library comes into its own. Every book found in this way has something to say that I already know about. But in a library it is surrounded by books on a similar subject – books that I didn’t know about. You pick them up, flick through them, and find treasures – and wisdom – you would never otherwise have found.

For the last few weeks I have been putting together notes and sources for Free Radicals, which has involved trips to a university library that I regularly use. When I’ve been checking the quotes I have pulled out, I’ve also “wasted” time looking up and down the surrounding shelves, pulling out things that look interesting, and skimming through them.

As a result, I have been distracted by utterly joy-inducing vignettes on science (and on humanity), written decades ago but all too relevant to today. It’s too late for most of them to be a part of Free Radicals, but I plan to blog on some of them – and my notes and sources material – over the next few months (the book comes out in July).

There is so much stuff in libraries that deserves an airing. Which is what, for me at least, is so appalling about the UK government’s suggestion that local councils save money by cutting library services. That isn’t about university libraries, of course, and the main concern has to be its effect upon reading by those who can’t afford to buy books, as Philip Pullman has so ably said.

I do, however, think it’s worth pointing out the joy and value of discovering a book that you could only have come across by being in the same physical space. So let me leave you with one of last week’s discoveries. This is from ‘Possible Worlds’, a book JBS Haldane wrote in 1927:

“Scientific ability is not the perquisite of any one race, but it can only show itself under conditions when thought is free, and there are many different ways of suppressing it. One way is to refuse research facilities to people without academic qualifications. If Faraday lived to-day he would not find his career much, if at all, easier in England; and in many countries he would have to remain a bookbinder. Scientific genius is so rare that no single system, however well thought out, will avail for its discovery and encouragement.”

And while you discuss that, I’m heading back to the library…

Fighting the Merchants of Doubt

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the scientist-for-hire Fred Singer. I only met this odious character fairly recently, in the pages of the magisterial Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway. I don’t often say this, but everyone should read that book. It exposes what scientists are up against when they try to do some good in the world: a well-organised, well-funded, carefully-orchestrated and powerful lobbying system that is carefully designed to undermine scientists threatening political or industrial interests.

The scary thing is, it’s not that hard to do. All that’s required is a few seeds of doubt – public confusion does the rest. I won’t delve into it here; read the book. It’s worth it, I promise, because it will make you angry, and righteous anger is sadly lacking in the world, and especially among scientists.

One of the most startling revelations in the book is actually about the good guys: that good scientists are not angry or combative enough. Oreskes and Conway delve into the details of some of the biggest scientific battlegrounds of the last 100 years – acid rain, climate change, tobacco marketing and the ozone crisis – and find the scientists strangely disappointing. “We would have liked to have told heroic stories of how scientists set the record straight,” they say. But only in a few scant cases were they able to. “Clearly, scientists knew that many contrarian claims were false,” they point out. “Why didn’t they do more to refute them?”

Their conclusion is that scientists are really quite timid when it comes to public exposure. They worry unceasingly about what their colleagues will say, and about personal attacks on their reputation from deniers of all colours. Sometimes scientists (as they don’t put it) can be real pussies.

There was a telling line at the end of this week’s Horizon. Paul Nurse, incoming head of the Royal Society, says scientists must engage more with the public, “even if it does sometimes put their reputation [in] doubt.”

It is a tacit admission of a problem in the infrastructure of science. You might have thought that public engagement only enhances a scientist’s reputation. You would be wrong. Those who involve themselves in efforts to bring the wonders of science to an eager public tend to suffer for that. Whoever you are – Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis, Brian Cox – there will be colleagues who look down their noses at your attempt to engage the public with science. If those are the wrong colleagues, you can find yourself, as Feynman did, passed over for tenure and denied membership of your national science academy. (This is not a thing of the past: there are those at CERN who don’t miss an opportunity to sneer at Cox, and this Nature piece gives examples of those who are fighting right now to overcome such prejudice).

I don’t know how Nurse is going to fix this problem: the implication of his statement seems to be that you can’t (I disagree, but it needs radical, root and branch change). The trouble is, even just talking to the public is no longer enough. In the face of the threat of climate change, scientists need to be not just talking about it, but getting themselves worked up about it. And this will be another source of censure.

The vast majority of scientists live in a culture where they are told scientists should not get worked up or involved. They should not be activists. They shouldn’t even talk about their frustrations and their concerns.We are in the sorry situation where people like senior climate scientist Susan Solomon get to tell the New York Times that, “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the sceptics.”

I couldn’t agree less. As Carl Sagan said in The Demon-Haunted World, “It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science.”

That’s why Sagan not only did the science on the nature of a nuclear winter, but also got himself arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in Nevada. It’s why James Hansen now gets himself arrested on a regular basis: it’s his way of humanising the scientific message of climate change. I’d like to see more of this. And so would everyone else.

In 2009, a Pew Survey revealed that more than three-quarters of the public thought it appropriate for scientists to become “actively involved in political debates on controversial issues such as stem cell research and nuclear power”. But here’s the real shocker. The overwhelming majority of scientists – 97 per cent – also express that view when polled in the same survey. Scientists are champing at the bit, and are only held back by senior colleagues’ weighty-sounding (but vacuous and ludicrous) pronouncements about the “proper” way of doing things.

The proper way of doing things is why it took 13 years to get the Montreal Protocol signed; it actually took the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic before anyone did anything substantial about CFCs and ozone. The climate situation is even more dire, and the scientifically “proper” way of doing things is clearly getting us nowhere. We’ve known what’s happening to the planet for decades. Now scientists have to take the lead in combating this threat – by “scientifically improper” means if necessary.

Even after Montreal, Fred Singer was agitating against the legislation, making it as weak as possible. He had huge reach – Senator Tom Delay, for example, is on record saying he got all his views from Singer. So did shock-jock Rush Limbaugh. Singer and his ilk are still active, sowing seeds of doubt in the public’s mind – now it’s about climate change. It’s a fight scientists won’t win by doing things the “proper” way, with one eye on their reputations and living in fear of the disapproval of their colleagues. If that kind of censure is allowed to continue, we will most likely have to wait for some catastrophic climate-related discovery to force governments to take appropriate action.

Science under attack? Not exactly…

In many ways, last night’s BBC Horizon (Science Under Attack) could have been a piece of comedy programming – in the style of The Office, say, or Pineapple Dance Studios. White-haired white male Sir Paul Nurse lovingly strokes a copy of Newton’s Principia in the basement archive of the Royal Society (“I have to touch it!”) while puzzled that some people just don’t connect with scientists.

Nurse goes on to skewer Telegraph climate change denier James Delingpole with a question about whether he would deny medical consensus if diagnosed with cancer, then visits an American man who is living, apparently healthily, with HIV – without taking the medical consensus treatment of antiretroviral drugs. The irony is lost on Nurse.

Luckily, there are other white-haired white male scientists to share the pain of not being understood. Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion. “I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature,” Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?

While Nurse’s hand-wringing voiceover repeatedly asks why not everyone believes the pronouncements of scientists, we get to see Nurse in his lab, surrounded by busy young post-docs of varying race and gender (no doubt working at close to minimum wage, but let’s not go there). We are slightly fed up with the self-pity by this stage, and shouting at the TV: “Look at them. They look normal, they look like the rest of us. Ask them! Ask them about how science should connect with the modern world !” But no, we go to Norwich instead, to talk to a white-haired white male scientist who is growing blighted potatoes in a rainy field.

This one doesn’t understand why people won’t accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they “didn’t want genes in their food”. From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away.

Perhaps the most heinous moment is when Nurse has tea with another white-haired white male scientist. Professor Fred Singer doesn’t believe global warming is caused by human activity and does his level best to get this point of view heard everywhere he can. Nurse listens politely over some Earl Grey, then goes to a (white-haired white male) NASA scientist who says Singer’s point of view has been examined and found wanting.

What is so heinous is that Singer’s is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. There is no mention of Singer’s previous convictions for anti-scientific lobbying. Could this be the same Fred Singer who, in the 1980s, when he sat on the White House’s Acid rain review panel, told us that acid rain wasn’t worth worrying about? Who, as the US Department of Transportation’s Chief Scientist repeatedly denied that CFCs were responsible for ozone depletion? The one who was on the advisory board of Alexis de Tocqueville, an organisation that defended the tobacco companies in their attempt to avoid higher taxes and responsibility for causing cancer?

Nurse is likeable in an avuncular kind of way, and I can’t help feeling his new role as President of the Royal Society is going to be a tough gig. I have always thought the Royal Society to be less like an uncle and more like my grandfather: pre-feminist – slightly misogynistic, actually – and wary of foreigners, especially those with dark skin. Oh, and toothless.

These days we need scientists, and those who preside over them, to bare their teeth. When it comes to public confusion over the truth about climate change, Nurse seems to want to blame the media, mischievious or credulous journalists, or a lazy public who don’t read the primary literature. The reality is, scientists such as Singer – who got off scot-free in this programme –are to blame for the fact that the public doesn’t know who to believe and that, consequently, governments feel no compulsion to take action on climate change. Scientists willing to compromise their integrity for money and positions of power are a much greater threat to climate science than the likes of James Delingpole, who is nothing more than a mouthpiece.

The issue this programme tried to address is of enormous importance – I think it’s the most important issue in science today. Which is why my next post about this programme (hopefully to come later today) won’t be nearly so snide.

Thanks for dropping by…

Welcome to my new site. It’s not exactly a blog, because I’m not a natural blogger. I get enough opportunities to write for New Scientist, the New Statesman and other outlets to make writing more stuff seem better left to others. I already have a (much-neglected) blog at my website: www.michaelbrooks.org. But I have a feeling that Free Radicals is going to require a space of its own where ideas, responses and discussions  directly related to the contents can take place. That realisation came partly as a result of its inclusion in the Guardian’s controversial books due for publication in 2011.

I’m not a natural troublemaker either. The book started life as a simple exploration of just how fascinating science is, and how human scientists are. The fact that this has been deliberately hidden from us was  a discovery I made along the way.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I hope Free Radicals will at least spark discussion about how we all relate to science, and whether we all need to change the way we make that happen.