Liberals don't have a clean history when it comes to science vs. ethics
02:48 PM CDT on Sunday, August 12, 2007
To hear the left tell it, the so-called war on science is the only war Republicans have managed to wage successfully.
From the Bush administration's suppression of data supporting global warming , to its opposition to federally funded embryonic stem-cell research, to the recent testimony of former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona , who said, of his former employer, "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried" – Republican government has occasioned an assault on science not seen since Urban VII told Galileo to shut his trap.
That's the story, anyway. Unfortunately, there's more than a kernel of truth in the overwrought charge. This administration has been pretty awful about twisting science to serve its policy goals – though please note that after Dr. Carmona's Galilean cri du coeur, the libertarian writer Radley Balko showed that Dr. Carmona was willing to play the same game, as long as science was distorted in ways of which he approved.
But the slam against conservatives, however justified, is also hypocritical, dishonest and even dangerous.
Liberals themselves have resisted scientific research that doesn't suit their own beliefs. Bjorn Lomberg, the Swedish scientist and renowned global warming skeptic, is treated slightly better than a heretic in Calvin's Geneva . The European left rejects scientific advice on genetically modified crops, demonizing them as "Frankenfoods." Before bringing up genetic or social science research that reflects negatively on the capabilities or performance of racial minorities, women or other human groupings favored by the left, you would do well to remember "The Bell Curve." And for decades, an avalanche of data detailing the failures of "scientific" socialism did little to shake the true believers in its superiority as an economic system.
When liberals accuse conservatives of opposing science, what they often mean is that conservatives simply disagree with their policy preferences, especially in the matter of bioethics. President Bush's refusal to commit federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research was not "anti-science," but rather a move that put exceedingly modest limits on science. Does anyone other than madmen believe that science should be free to operate with no moral limits imposed by society? If scientific curiosity is its own justification, then prepare to pay your respects to Dr. Mengele.
Raising the anti-science alarm is a tried-and-true rhetorical strategy. For one thing, it allows liberals to flatter themselves for their superior intellect. For another, positing these conflicts as a clash between the forces of reason and ignorance has been an effective public relations move since at least the Scopes monkey trial. It plays to the American weakness for scientism – that is, granting science authority it does not deserve.
Result: Disagree with what scientists, or many scientists, say, and you reveal yourself to be a mouth-breathing peasant with a torch in one hand, a Bible in the other, ready to burn down the labs. In no case are you to be taken seriously. Sneering is not an argument, but as a political matter, it's often argument enough.
"People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved," writes Harvard scientist Steven Pinker , in an edge.org essay about dangerous ideas.
"Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse," he continues, "because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason."
Why is this dangerous? Decisions that individuals and societies make based on false, flawed or ideologically tainted scientific information can be harmful, even devastating. History – Ciao, Galileo! –shows how damaging it can be to suppress science to serve an ideological agenda. Recent history shows how destructive it can be to suppress moral reasoning to serve a scientism-driven agenda.
In the early 20th century, eugenics – the scientific philosophy devoted to improving the human race through various forms of genetic engineering – was supported by leading scientists and academics, as well as progressive philanthropists, politicians and social reformers. Many mainstream Protestant religious leaders evangelized on the idea that science, through sterilization and selective breeding, should be employed to improve society by reducing the numbers of the "unfit."
Many liberals – religious and otherwise – embraced eugenics. So did business-minded conservatives. Who opposed it? In the main, Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics, who were denounced as obscurantists trying, yes, to impede the progress of science. And then came the Nazis.
Is it crazy to consider that religious traditionalists, whatever their shortcomings, might be playing the same prophetic role today? In this age of genetic wizardry, and a time in which something called "liberal eugenics" is bidding for respectability, can we really afford to vilify these people again? Last time around, the conservative church folks didn't know as much as the intelligentsia who looked down on them. But they knew what really mattered.
It was a genetic breakthrough that made us capable of ideas in the first place, says Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Ideas have had their impact for good… But one of these days, one of those nice ideas is likely to have the unintended consequence of destroying everything we know,” he writes in one of the brief essays included in ‘What is Your Dangerous Idea?’ edited by John Brockman (www.landmarkonthenet.com).
The title draws from the question posed to the readers by ‘Edge’ (www.edge.org). And the responses fill the book, as ‘a celebration of the ideas of the third culture’. The ‘dangerous ideas’ are not about harmful technologies and WMDs, but about statements of fact or policy evidenced by science, which are ‘felt to challenge the collective decency of an age’.
Every era has its dangerous ideas, notes the intro. “Time and again people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous.” There are a few mercies, however. “Punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to cancelling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews.”
The opening essay, ‘we have no souls’, by John Horgan, director of the Centre for Science Writings, dangerously proposes that when our minds can be programmed like personal computers, then perhaps we will finally abandon ‘the belief that we have immortal, inviolable souls – unless, of course, we program ourselves to believe.’
Rodney Brooks, author of ‘Flesh and Machines’, wonders if we might find ourselves to be alone, not just in the solar system, but in the galaxy. The shock could ‘drive us to despair and back toward religion as our salve,’ he postulates. In a similar vein, Keith Devlin of Stanford University suggests that we are entirely alone. Yet, “The fact that our existence has no purpose for the universe – whatever that means – in no way means that it has no purpose for us,” he declares.
“I don’t share my most dangerous ideas,” protests W. Daniel Hillis, chairman of Applied Minds, Inc. “I have often seen otherwise thoughtful people so caught up in such an idea that they seem unable to resist sharing it. To me, the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas is itself a very dangerous idea. I hope it never catches on.”
On the contrary, to Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, the only dangerous idea is, ‘the idea that ideas can be dangerous’. We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air, he rues. “Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one.”
Cyberdisinhibition is dangerous, according to Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’. A major disconnect between the ways our brains are wired to connect and the interface offered in online communications, he cautions. “The Internet may harbour social perils that our inhibitory circuitry was not evolutionarily designed to handle.”
Kevin Kelly, editor at large of ‘Wired’ feels that it is dangerous to think that more anonymity is good. “Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously,” he says. “In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.”
Recommended read to detox a tired mind.
The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How Science Can Predict the Ultimate Fate of Our World, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (Portrait, £8.99)
"Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice". These lines from Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" appear at the start of Ward and Brownlee's book which argues that both fates await us. The authors are a palaeontologist ("a glorified and well-educated grave robber") and an astronomer ("a catcher of comets"). They point out that the Earth is already middle aged and past its best years. We are fortunate to live in an interglacial period but "the gentle green cradle we regard as normal" is in fact only temporary. After global warming ("a blink in planetary time") has done its worst, the Earth will catch a very nasty cold. For the next ice age is coming: glaciers half a kilometre high will grind their way down to New York and into central Europe. After this, the authors whisk us away hundreds of millions of years into the future, to a time when the sun has become a red giant. Then the only life on Earth will be those from which it all evolved: bacteria. This fascinating but bleak work of scientific eschatology is an important reminder of "how wondrous, fragile, and perilous our present world is".
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, edited by John Brockman (Pocket, £8.99)
The "traditional intellectual" is out of a job; scientists now tell us who and what we are, argues John Brockman, the literary agent and founder of the website Edge. Each year Edge poses a question to the leading "thinkers in the empirical world". In 2006 Steven Pinker suggested "What is your dangerous idea?" - not the secret of a doomsday device, or some fiendish theory, but an idea that is dangerous "because it might be true". There are more than 100 responses in this volume and they make fascinating and provocative reading. For Charles Seife (author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea), "nothing can be more dangerous than nothing". Equally chilling is psychologist Susan Blackmore's thought that everything is pointless. Even her contribution to the book is merely the result of "memes competing in the pointless universe". Richard Dawkins, as ever, is splendidly controversial. He comments that eugenics is notable for its absence and asks "what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons". It doesn't get much more dangerous than that.
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Phoenix, £9.99)
Could it be that Michael Palin is the most well-adjusted famous comedian ever? His diaries, started when he was 25 and writing TV comedy sketches, certainly give no hint of a dark soul, of creative angst, or addiction to audience appreciation. Reading them is a curiously fascinating pleasure, though there are long swaths where not a lot happens. Not once, in 10 years, does Palin record a row with his wife. Rarely does he report extremes of emotion - no black moods, flared tempers or skittish exuberance - all the more remarkable considering how quickly the Pythons were becoming famous during these years. And yet for all that the diaries are a gently compelling look at a life lived in 70s Britain. Couples meet young and get married, and usually remain so. Babies are born, become toddlers, and couples become families. Parents get older and frailer and become a worry. There are three glorious months in Tunisia shooting The Life of Brian which will appease comedy nerds, but really it is all a delight. Would that all our celebrities could record the events of their remarkable lives in such a calm, measured way.
Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, by Paddy Agnew (Ebury, £7.99)
When Paddy Agnew arrived in Italy from Ireland 20 years ago to become a football journalist, he continued to wear his old scruffy leather jacket. Had he ditched the jacket and invested in some smart Armani suits, his progress would have been a lot smoother. It's a lesson that his entertaining and immensely readable book shows applies to all aspects of Italian life: some surface style can conceal just about anything. In the case of football and Serie A, the particular skills of del Piero, Maldini and Totti (who somehow manage to come across as sex gods even in translation), have through the years glossed over endemic corruption, enforced doping of players, blatant match fixing, mafia connections and fan violence. Hovering over it all is Berlusconi, ensuring that no aspect of Italian life for the past couple of decades has been free of his heavy-handed control. It is a disgrace, of course it is. But still it feels more shameful to be reminded that when they tried playing there, a hapless Ian Rush demanded baked beans and Welsh ale, and Gazza's contribution to la dolce vita was burping into Italian journalists' microphones.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze (Penguin, £12.99)
A revisionist history of Nazi Germany, as reconsidered from the bottom line (which ultimately couldn't be made to add up). It starts with the first governmental work of the Nazis in 1934 dealing with crises of balance of payments and consumption - not up the glamour end of the economy, either, but down among the imported oilcake animal feedstuffs supporting the urban populace's sausage intake. Armed German expansionism, especially the Lebensraum plan to settle farmers in a people-purged USSR, was meant to improve the standard of living for an emerging economy not backed by the resource-rich and underpopulated landmasses of the US or France, nor sea-supplied from the British empire. Not "guns OR butter" (though there was a permanent fat deficit post-1934) but the production of guns for use in the confiscation of Europe's butter. It comes down in the starved, powerless end to the 450 daily ration calories often not issued to the mouths of occupied Poland, and the begrudged litres of petrol, Romanian or synthesised, on which the Panzer tanks made their final stand. Astounding.
Die Weltwoche | The New York Review of Books | The New Yorker | Der Spiegel | The New York Times | The Economist | Nepszabadsag | Edge.org | Asharq al-Awsat | Magyar Hirlap | Figyelö | Gazeta Wyborcza
Edge.org 18.07.2007 (USA)
Kevin Kelly, one of the heralds of the "third culture" explains the term that he coined: "technium" (more on Kelly's homepage). He understands it as all the converging and networked technological and scientific revolutions, particularly in genetics and the natural sciences, which could have frightening consequences and must be controlled. ...
Im Spiegel verteidigt Alexander Solschenizyn den KGB-Mann Wladimir Putin. In der New York Times porträtiert Bernhard-Henri Levy Nicolas Sarkozy als Freibeuter nationaler Identitäten. Magyar Hirlap versteht die Wut der Kaczynskis auf Europa. Nepszabadsag spürt es in Ungarns Tiefe gären. In Edge bereitet uns Kevin Kelly darauf vor, ein halberwachsenes Technium gehen zu lassen. Der New Yorker porträtiert Abraham Burg, den Herold des Zionismus und seines Endes. Der Spectator feuert Boris Johnson an, der jetzt Bürgermeister von London werden will. Für die New York Review of Books gibt Timothy Garton Ash Günter Grass einen halben Punkt. Und der Economist vermisst Reiche in Berlin.
Essays and Opinion
Dangerous ideas: science has a habit of turning them up, and the internet has a habit of blowing their cover. Let's face them squarely in open debate, says Steven Pinker...
Über die neue Politik des Wissens
Die Masse macht's eben nicht: Die Wikipedia-Ideologie von der Schwarmintelligenz gleicht einer Lebenslüge
Von Larry Sanger
[Translated from WHO SAYS WE KNOW: On the New Politics of Knowledge By Larry Sanger 4.28.07 — An Edge Original Essay]
"...He [Brockman] also runs a kind of global online Royal Society called Edge. Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art."
The main question that I'm asking myself is, what is the meaning of technology in our lives? What place does technology have in the universe? What place does it have in the human condition? And what place should it play in my own personal life? Technology as a whole system, or what I call the technium, seems to be a dominant force in the culture. Indeed at times it seems to be the only force - the only lasting force - in culture. If that's so, then what can we expect from this force, what governs it? Sadly we don't even have a good theory about technology.
I'm trying to investigate ways to understand the long-term consequences of technology in the world and place it into some position along with other grand things like biological nature, big history, the physics of the cosmos, and the future. It's a very ambitious project and, surprisingly, there isn't really much thinking about technology in terms of its sphere of influence in a way that might be useful to thinking about how to evaluate what we make.
Link to full text of essay.
Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine and author of books including New Rules for the New Economy, and Out of Control. He is currently editor and publisher of the Cool Tools, True Film, and Street Use websites. (thanks, John Brockman)
In Defense of Dangerous Ideas
In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.
By Steven Pinker
...By "dangerous ideas" I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age. The ideas listed above, and the moral panic that each one of them has incited during the past quarter century, are examples. Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened and in some cases physically assaulted.
[This essay was first posted at Edge (www.edge.org) and is reprinted with permission. It is the Preface to the book 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable,' published by HarperCollins.]
www.edge.org Praised by everyone from the Guardian, Prospect magazine, Wired, the New York Times and BBC Radio 4, Edge is an online collective of deep thinkers. The nonprofit foundation was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of Manhattan's Reality Club, with the mandate to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society". As the site brags, their contributors aren't on the frontier, they are the frontier. Thus you can hear from the likes of Esther Dyson and Bill Gates, as well as a host of lesser-known, but no less incisive commentators. Edge are the people who publish the Dangerous Idea titles, and their site is no less thought provoking. There are, however, a lot of adverts down the side for books, which you'll either find distracting or enticing.
Back in the day, when people were still asking me to explain "Mondo 2000," I used to tell them that we were doing this psychedelic counterculture magazine called "High Frontiers" in the mid-1980s and we were shocked — just shocked — when we were befriended by the Silicon Valley elite. Suddenly, we found ourselves at parties where some of the major software and hardware designers of those early days were hanging out with NASA scientists, quantum physicists, hippies and lefty radicals, artists, libertarians, and your general motley assortment of smart types.
I was being a bit disingenuous when I made these comments. "High Frontiers" already had a tech/science bias, largely because we'd been influenced by the "Leary-Wilson paradigm." So we were technologically progressive tripsters. I'd also followed Stewart Brand's work with interest through the years.
The connection between the creators of the driving engine of the contemporary global economy, and the countercultural attitudes that were popular among young people during the 1960s and 70s was sort of a given within the cultural milieu we ("High Frontiers/Mondo 2000") found ourselves immersed in as the 1980s spilled into the 90s. Everybody was "experienced." Everybody was suspicious of state and corporate authority — even those who owned corporations. People casually recalled hanging out with Leary, or The Grateful Dead, or Ken Kesey, or Abbie Hoffman. You get the picture.
Scientists and empirical thinkers have always generated dangerous ideas as they wrestle with evidence and theories that appear to contradict conventional wisdom and widely accepted social mores. Dawkins sees this as healthy for society. "Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change," he says. "Yesterday's dangerous idea is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's cliché." He adds, however, that it is patently not enough for an idea just to be dangerous. It must also be good.
It was, of course, a particularly good idea to bring this remarkable group of scientists and thinkers together. Few would have been capable of doing so. But not for nothing has Brockman been described by Dawkins as having "the most enviable address book in the English-speaking world". More than that, though, he has an insatiable hunger for ideas and intellectual debate. Back in the 1960s, when Brockman was working alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Hunter S Thompson as an avant-garde arts promoter, he was invited regularly to dine and debate with John Cage, the composer and philosopher, and a small group of fiercely bright young artists and scientists. The experience had a profound impact on him." Out of that I got an appreciation for almost the purity of ideas and the excitement of rubbing shoulders with people that could challenge you," he says.
When his friend, the late conceptual artist James Lee Byars, proposed getting together 100 of the world's greatest thinkers to debate with one another in a single room, Brockman shared his excitement at the prospect of an explosion of ideas. And although the project — the World Question Centre — never got off the ground, the concept lived on. Working with Heinz Pagels, the physicist, Brockman later founded the Reality Club so that top thinkers could spar with and inspire one another over dinner. In 1997 he took this informal conversation into cyberspace with the online magazine Edge. It is here that the intellectual elite that he has gathered now thrash out their often contrary views. And it is here that each year on January 1, Brockman posts the group's answers to a different, deceptively simple question. In 2005 it was: "What do you believe to be true, but cannot prove?" Last year it was: "What is your dangerous idea?"
The question was proposed by the psychologist Steven Pinker, a prominent member of the group. "I suggested to John Brockman that he devote his annual Edge question to dangerous ideas because I believe that they are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and that we are ill-equipped to deal with them," Pinker says. He notes that such ideas get loaded with ethical implications that in retrospect often seem ludicrous. The urge to suppress heretical views is, Pinker declares, a recurring human weakness.
We talk about thinking out of the box but some ideas don't even get off the ground because of cultural taboos or political correctness. Here, five experts – including Richard Dawkins – propose the unthinkable …
Today's most shocking pro posals are those that provoke outrage: not among the religious or political establishments, but in the heart of every well-meaning, peace-loving, Make Poverty History-marching denizen of the world. Dangerous ideas, according to psychologist Steven Pinker, "are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order" and "challenge the collective decency of an age".
Are suicide bombers driven by sane, moral motives? Do African-American men tend to have higher levels of testosterone than whites? Could it be that some sexual abuse victims suffer no lifelong damage? Have religions caused more human suffering than the Nazis? Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease? Pinker reels off a long list of suggestions that have caused "moral panics" during recent decades. Which of them makes your blood boil?
But hurt feelings are not a measure of the legitimacy of a scientific hypothesis, and Pinker's point is that in attempting to advance our understanding, progressive thinkers must be prepared to question sacred values and break the taboos of political correctness. Scientists, he adds, have always been heretics, and today, "the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution and the environment sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us. Moreover, the rise of glo bal isation and the internet are allowing heretics to find one another and work around the barriers of traditional media and academic journals."
The website, www.edge.org, founded by writer John Brockman, allows leading thinkers to engage in uncensored debate, by inviting responses to one provocative question each year. In 2006, Steven Pinker was asked to come up with a query designed to get their intellectual juices flowing. Pinker dared the Edge community to propose "an idea that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true". The responses are collected in a new book published this week. Overleaf, we present a selection of the most explosive ideas of our age.
PD Smith on What We Believe But Cannot Prove
What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty edited by John Brockman (Pocket Books, £7.99)
According to Richard Dawkins, science proceeds by hunches. John Brockman's cybersalon, Edge.org, invited members of the "third culture" - the scientists whom he considers to be the "pre-eminent intellectuals of our time" - to contribute their most cherished intuitions. As Ian McEwan (a rare non-scientist here) points out, this is rather intriguing because scientists, unlike "literary critics, journalists or priests", don't just believe things. They need proof. Indeed, Simon Baron-Cohen dismisses "ideas that cannot in principle be proved or disproved". But mathematician John Barrow is happy to believe that "our universe is infinite in size, finite in age, and just one among many", all "unprovable in principle". But the nature of consciousness turns out to be more controversial. Daniel Dennett argues that animals and prelinguistic children are not truly conscious, whereas Alison Gopnik claims young children are more conscious than adults: "every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide-and-seek is Einstein in 1905, and every day is first love in Paris". Scientific pipedreams at their very best.
One of these claims is sure to make your blood boil: the assertion that humans have no soul. Or that we are alone in the universe. Or that the search for the origin of life is pointless.
In What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable (Harper Perennial, $13.95), John Brockman, founder of Edge (www.edge.org), an online salon, asks 108 thinkers and scientists to describe their "most dangerous idea." Harvard University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker sets the tone in the introduction: "Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution, and the environmental sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us," he writes.
Essentially a compendium of short essays, the book reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science—some of whom, of course, talk right past each other. String theory king Brian Greene contends that our universe is just one of many. On the next page, quantum theory proponent Carlo Rovelli shoots down the multiverse as "audacious scientific speculation."
Bold ideas aren't limited to the hard sciences; there's something here to provoke everyone, including the suggestion that evil emerges in all of us. Geneticist-provocateur J. Craig Venter proposes that we are not all created equal; the unorthodox psychology writer Judith Rich Harris undermines parenting by claiming that parents don't have much influence over the ultimate character of their children.
Don't expect to find answers here. Brockman will have you asking more questions than when you started—and may even change your mind about the ideas you've always been convinced are right. After reading What Is Your Dangerous Idea? even know-it-alls will realize how little they know for sure.
The new age of ignorance
We take our young children to science museums, then as they get older we stop. In spite of threats like global warming and avian flu, most adults have very little understanding of how the world works. So, 50 years on from CP Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' essay, is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever?
Here we ask a celebrity panel to answer some basic scientific questions
It is an immutable law of nature that acute embarrassment can make a few short seconds last pretty much for ever. The longest two minutes of my life occurred in the company of James Watson, one half of the famous double act who discovered the double helix. I was interviewing Watson, then in his late seventies, at his lab in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. At one point, I referred blithely to the 'perfect simplicity' of his and Francis Crick's findings about the code of life.
Watson is a mischievous, famously prickly man and that phrase seemed to get under his skin. He raised an eyebrow. He sat back. He thought he would have some fun. Seeing as it was all so perfectly simple, he suggested, maybe I could briefly run through my understanding of DNA base pairing, say, or chromosome mapping.
What followed - a tangled, stuttering stream of consciousness reflecting distant O-level biology and recent half-understanding of Watson's brilliant books, punctuated with words like 'replication' and 'mutation' and meaning nothing much - gave new resonance to the notion of floundering.
Watson, resisting the temptation to laugh, correct or comment, simply moved on, having categorically established our respective levels of evolution. I can still cringe now at the brief pause that concluded my ill-judged aside on the significance of the genome.
Given that science informs so much of our culture, and so many of us have such patchy knowledge, it is surprising that such embarrassments are not routine. It's half a century since CP Snow put forward the idea of the 'Two Cultures', the intractable divide between the sciences and the humanities, first in an article in the New Statesman, then in a lecture series at Cambridge and finally in a book. Back then, Snow, who was both a novelist and a physicist, used to employ a test at dinner parties to demonstrate his argument.
'A good many times,' he suggested, 'I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice, I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: have you ever read a work of Shakespeare's?'
Fifty years on, and exponential scientific advance later, it seems unlikely that the response of dinner guests would be much different. I was reminded of Snow's test when reading the new book by Natalie Angier, science editor of the New York Times. Angier's book is called The Canon, and subtitled 'A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science'. It is not a long book and it contains, as the title suggests, a breathless Baedeker of the fundamental scientific knowledge Angier believes is the minimum requirement of an educated person.
In many places, I found myself cringeing all over again. I've read a fair amount of popular science, tried to follow the technical arguments that underpin debates about global warming, say, or bird flu, listened religiously to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, but still I discovered large black holes in my elementary understanding of how our world works. Angier divides her book into basic disciplines - biology, chemistry, geology, physics and so on - and each chapter offers an animated essay on the current established thinking.
The result is the kind of science book you wish someone had placed in front of you at school - full of aphorisms that help everything fall into place. For geology: 'This is what our world is about: there is heat inside and it wants to get out.' For physics: 'Almost everything we've come to understand about the universe we have learned by studying light.' Along the way there are all sorts of facts that stick: 'You would have to fly on a commercial aircraft every day for 18,000 years before your chances of being in a crash exceeded 50 per cent', for example; or, if you imagined the history of our planet as a single 75-year human life span: 'The first ape did not arrive until May or June of the final year... and Neil Armstrong muddied up the Moon at 20 seconds to midnight.'
Angier also gives as clear an insight as I have read of CP Snow's culture-dividing Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy, the one that states that in any system inefficiency is inevitable and eventually overwhelming. 'Entropy,' Angier writes, 'is like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager.'
Entropy, unusable energy, leads to the law that states that everything in time must wear out, become chaotic, die. 'The darkest readings of the Second Law suggest that even the universe has a morphine drip in its vein,' Angier suggests, 'a slow smothering of all spangle, all spiral, all possibility.' No wonder CP Snow thought we should know about it.
For all of its infectious analogies and charged curiosity, the most telling fact about Angier's book is that it seems to have been written out of sheer desperation. It is something of a cry from the wilderness; impassioned, overwrought in places. It is written in the voice of someone who has spent her whole award-winning career evangelising about this amazing stuff and is facing up to the fact that most people have not even begun to 'get' any of it.
Angier's tipping point, the reason she came to write the book, was a decision made by her sister. When the second of her two children turned 13 the sister decided that it was time to let their membership lapse in two familiar family haunts: the science museum and the zoo. They were, the implication went, ready to put away childish things, ready to go to the theatre and the art gallery, places where there was none of this 'mad pinball pinging from one hands-on science exhibit to the next, pounding on knobs to make artificial earthquakes'. They had grown out of science.
Angier believes this idea - that science is something for kids - still pervades much of our thinking, and characterises the presentation of science in culture. Part of it is the notion that argues science is just a bunch of facts with no overarching coherence. Just as bad are the media, which insist on ghettoising science and serving it up as cliches: scientists as boffins, with permanent bad-hair days; science as controversy, always set up for polarised clashes with religion.
'Science is rather a state of mind,' Angier argues and, as such, it should inform everything. 'It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing for granted.' It would be hard to argue that this state of mind was advancing across the globe. We no longer make and mend, so we no longer know how anything works.
One of Angier's interviewees, Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard's earth and planetary sciences department, suggests that 'the average American adult today knows less about biology than the average 10-year-old living in the Amazon, or the average American of 200 years ago'. I spoke to Angier to find out why she thought that this might be the case.
To some extent, she suggested, that was a political question. 'Here in the US we have had the last seven years of this administration which has made everything about the two-cultures divide seem worse.' But it is not just that. 'Newspapers are getting rid of all their science pages; they are jettisoning all their science staff. The feeling is people don't want to read it.'
The implications of this, and the resultant general scientific illiteracy, she believes, are possibly catastrophic. Forty-two per cent of Americans in a recent survey said they believed that humans had been on Earth since the beginning of time. 'A geophysicist friend suggests we are at a critical crossroads just like the start of the Renaissance,' Angier says, 'where you couldn't just leave reading and writing to the kings and priests anymore. Ordinary people have to keep up. In the world we live in, the new economy, you have to become scientifically literate or you will fall quickly from view.'
It is, apparently, not just America that does not want to hear this news. Foreign rights to Angier's book have been snapped up in auctions by publishers across Asia and Eastern Europe, 'countries that see themselves as the economic future', but she has not, for example, sold her book in the UK, a place, we might remember, where 20 per cent of people still believe that the Sun revolves around Earth. 'I tend to see that as a tiny little sign that some of these more aggressive competitive nations are more aware of what the future looks like,' Angier suggests.
She believes this persistent apathy in matters of science in America and Britain comes in part from a lack of interest in what the future might hold. 'In the 1960s, we had the space race, we had these world fairs and the whole idea of the future was very exciting. Science was something they wanted to be involved in.' You could hope that the apocalyptic panic that attends climate change, the front pages of floodwaters rising, might have a similar effect. 'Whatever you think of him, Al Gore has been great for science,' she says.
Angier's initiation into the 'beautiful basics' was brought about by a professor at the University of Michigan, who taught a 'physics of music' class. The walls between the two cultures came tumbling down every week. 'There were kids from the engineering and physics departments and then there were kids from the music departments. I was just in there on my own. But the way he brought us together was an extraordinary thing,' she recalls. 'Both groups were kind of ecstatic; this guy would get standing ovations at the end of every lecture. So I guess I saw that bridging that gap might be something to strive for in life in terms of engaging people.'
This kind of engagement, a sense of a bigger picture in science, its poetry and mystery, is no doubt all too rare. In a 2005 survey of British teenagers at school conducted by the exam board OCR, more than half said they thought science classes were 'boring', 'confusing' and 'difficult'. Just 7 per cent believed that scientists were 'cool' and when asked to pick out a famous scientist from a list including Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, a fair few chose Christopher Columbus.
Some of this Angier believes has to do with the way science is taught - 'I go through these science books for kids and they are so dull compared to the novels that children read... I think that you have to make it an epic journey, a narrative with heroes and villains, molecules engaging in this struggle for life.' A lot of it, however, is cultural, she believes. Numbers of students still studying science at 18 are falling in Britain and America, perhaps because we are becoming generally less motivated to address difficulty.
As a culture, we allow ourselves too many excuses. 'Western parents are quite comfortable saying their children have a predilection for art or for writing or whatever, and allow them just to pursue that. In the Asian education system, if you are not good at something, it's because you are lazy and you just have to work harder at it. Just because things are hard does not mean they are not worth doing.'
That idea of difficulty, I suggest, cannot really be helped in the States in particular, when all of the presidential candidates of one party stand up in televised debate and say they believe in 'intelligent design' and suggest that the world could well have been created by a bearded God a few thousand years ago. Angier laughs, somewhat bleakly.
'I see all that as a macho kind of posturing. It's like, I can believe the impossible: look, I can lift a tree! It is a Republican initiation ritual, like having a hook pulled through your cheek and not flinching.' But no, she concedes, it doesn't help much.
Some people would suggest that Natalie Angier's enlightenment utopia, in which everyone might one day agree on the fundamentals of the universe, the beautiful basics, is a false ideal; the mass has always believed in mumbo-jumbo. One of these people is John Brockman. Brockman has probably done more than anyone to break down CP Snow's cultural divide. He is the PT Barnum of popular science, a great huckster of ideas. In the Sixties, he hung out with John Cage and Andy Warhol, got an MBA and then made his first fortune selling psychedelia to corporations, turning on marketing executives with 'multikinetic happenings' and showing them how their profits could levitate.
These days, he acts as literary agent for many of the world's greatest minds, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, and achieves for some of them the kind of publishing advances that it takes great mathematicians to compute. It is Brockman who invented the publishing market for quarks and quantum theory and black holes in the 1990s, and it is he who is behind the current boom in atheism. The universe may be infinite, but Brockman takes 15 per cent of it.
He also runs a kind of global online Royal Society called Edge. Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art. The name itself derives from a phrase of CP Snow's outlining his personal hope for the future. Brockman, when launching his Third Culture in 1991, had significant ambition for the project, much of which has been realised. 'The Third Culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are,' he suggested, grandly.
Though Brockman borrowed Snow's phrase, he did not employ it in the same way: Snow had hoped for a kind of detente between the rival mindsets; Brockman perceived a third way. 'Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists,' he suggested. 'Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game; journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, Third Culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavour to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.'
Brockman's cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chatrooms, has its premises on his website www.edge.org. Eavesdropping is fun. Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists who has contributed to Edge's ongoing debates, suggests that the project is not so far removed from the 'old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists'.
Brockman is at the hub of this conversation. When I phone him, he is waiting for a call from maverick geneticist Craig Venter about an invention that will 'put new operating mechanisms into genes' and radically change our idea of life; earlier, he has been speaking to George Smoot, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist who first identified the background radiation of the Big Bang and thereby invented cosmology.
From where he is sitting, the Two Cultures no longer applies, the Third Culture has long-since prevailed.
'Basically, in terms of whatever war has been going on, I think it has finished,' he says. 'I don't characterise it by saying we've won. I think everybody has won. We are living in a profound science culture and the big events that are affecting people's lives are scientific ones.'
What about Natalie Angier's anxiety that these ideas have not trickled down, that, if anything, scientific thought seems to be on the retreat?
'Since when have the masses of people had any ideas anyway?' Brockman asks. 'It is always a certain percentage of people who do the thinking for everybody else. What is changing,' he argues, contrary to Angier's perception, 'is that the media people, who used to have no thoughts of science, now sit up. Science makes the news.'
I wonder why there are still so few literary contributors to Edge, which has remained a predominantly scientific and philosophical forum. Is there not some evidence there that the divide persists?
Brockman explains how Edge evolved out of a group called the Reality Club that held actual meetings with scientists, artists, architects, musicians. Ten of the leading novelists in America were invited to participate. Not one accepted.
'We are talking about Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, John Irving,' Brockman says. 'Ian McEwan is one of the first writers to jump feet-first into the world of science and embraced it wholeheartedly. But we still have never had a novelist come to one of these events. Neither have we had a major business person. Maybe getting up in front of a group of Nobel-winning scientists to talk might be intimidating for these people. Maybe they are too busy.'
Brockman's optimism is infectious, and, at his elite level, the battle may have been won, but further down the food chain, the forces of reason are still compromised by the culture.
When I had recovered a little of my composure with James Watson, back in Cold Spring Harbor, I asked him how he thought the climate of scientific research had changed since he made his fateful discovery of the structure of life in 1953. As ever, he came at the question from an unusual angle. He doubted, he said, that in today's world, he and Francis Crick would ever have had their Eureka moment.
'I recently went to my staircase at Clare College, Cambridge and there were women there!' he said, with an enormous measure of retrospective sexual frustration. 'There have been a lot of convincing studies recently about the loss of productivity in the Western male. It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn't have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don't bother.'
Watson raised an eyebrow, fixed me again with a look. 'What you have instead are characters out of Nick Hornby's very funny books, who channel their intellect in pop culture. The hopeless male.'
As James Watson knows perhaps more clearly than anyone alive, biology works in mysterious ways.
If your notion of a dangerous idea is handing the car keys to Lindsay Lohan or entering a biker bar and calling its patrons a bunch of pansies, you might want to steer clear of this book.
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers On The Unthinkable deals strictly with the bigger-picture stuff, gathering 108 bright lights from around the world to proffer theories and opinions on everything from the meaning of life and our relevance in the universe (or absence thereof) to the erosion of democracy.
These "what if" scenarios have been compiled by John Brockman, founder of the "third culture" website The Edge (www.edge.org), an online forum for fellow eggheads and a community – to quote the site – "of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is quite properly drawing praise for its thorough, step-by-step chronicle of the great man's long and eventful life, but if you want a briefer, quirkier, more multifaceted picture of Einstein, try "My Einstein" (Pantheon, 2006). The latter, edited by John Brockman, is a bouquet of brilliant essays by Einstein's intellectual peers: top scientists who know their way around a quark. My quarrel with the Isaacson biography is that it occasionally feels padded, as if the author is just adding anecdotes to thicken the sauce, whereas the essays in the Brockman book are zippy and personal.
En 1959, C. P. Snow dictó en Cambridge una famosa conferencia titulada Las dos culturas y la revolución científica, deplorando la escisión académica y profesional entre el ramo de las ciencias y el de las letras. En 1991, el agente literario John Brockman popularizó el concepto de la tercera cultura, para referirse a la entrada en escena de los científicos-escritores. Nacería así un nuevo humanismo. Un nuevo humanismo que ya no sería tanto el humanismo clásico cuanto una nueva hibridación entre ciencias y letras.
En lo que concierne a la filosofía, este nuevo humanismo debería estar atento no sólo a la ciencia, sino al mayor número posible de corrientes de pensamiento vivo. Ello es que la filosofía no debe estar encerrada en un departamento académico profesional, sino ejercerse en un cruce interdisciplinario y en "conversación" -como dijera el recientemente desaparecido Richard Rorty- con todas las demás ciencias. La filosofía tiene que trazar mapas de la realidad. El filósofo es, en palabras de Platón, "el que tiene la visión de conjunto (synoptikós)", es decir, el que organiza lo más relevante de la "información almacenada" (cultura) y esboza nuevas cosmovisiones (provisionales, pero coherentes). Por otra parte, la inicial intuición de los filósofos "analíticos" -que fueron los primeros en señalar la importancia de evitar las trampas que nos tiende el lenguaje- no debe echarse en saco roto.
Pienso, así, que un nuevo humanismo debería asumir ciertas reformas lingüísticas. Recordemos, por ejemplo, lo mucho que nos sigue condicionando todavía el viejo constructo aristotélico hecho de sujeto, verbo y predicado, que es también el modelo cartesiano de cognición sujeto-objeto. Esta convención es responsable -como ya denunciaran tanto Buda como David Hume- de incurrir en la falacia de creer que hay mente cuando lo único seguro es que hay actos mentales.
Lo que ocurre es que en el género filosófico las palabras tienen que transmitir conceptos, y por ahí caben pocas florituras. En filosofía es muy difícil salirse de un determinado modelo gramatical. Martin Heidegger ya explicó que tuvo que renunciar a escribir la segunda parte de El ser y el tiempo por la inadecuación del lenguaje de la metafísica que siempre identifica el ser con el ente, olvidando la diferencia ontológica. Hoy, cuando la filosofía tiende a confundirse con la literatura, ¿qué otros recursos caben? Gregory Bateson solía decir que hay que acostumbrarse a una nueva forma de pensar que substituya los objetos por relaciones. Pero substituir los objetos por relaciones es contar historias. De modo que Gregory Bateson nos estaba invitando a contar historias.
En todo caso, si bien se ha producido el "giro lingüístico", nuestros hábitos sintácticos han cambiado poco. Y ya digo que se comprende. El ya citado Heidegger, en su segunda época, reivindicó la poesía -cuyo ejemplo supremo sería Hölderlin- como modelo de lenguaje no objetivante, no reducido a simple instrumento de información. Sólo que Heidegger llegó a embriagarse tanto de "oscuridad poética" que difícilmente se le podía seguir. En cuanto a los lenguajes formales usados por las ciencias duras, sucede que al final sólo son accesibles a un grupo reducidísimo de especialistas. Así, pongo por caso, todavía las gentes ilustradas pudieron digerir en su día la teoría de la gravitación de Newton, e incluso la de la relatividad de Einstein (aunque ésta ya menos, la constancia de la velocidad de la luz es estrictamente contraintuitiva); pero ¿quién es capaz de seguir la endiablada complejidad matemática de la teoría de las supercuerdas?
Y, con todo, hay ahí un camino a mi juicio irreversible. Pues, al margen del lenguaje que uno utilice, ha sonado la hora de liberarse de la tiranía de la intuición, el sentido común y otros embelecos parecidos.
Por otra parte, ¿por qué la realidad habría de ser completamente inteligible? De entrada, el teorema de Gödel impugna la noción misma de una teoría completa de la natura: cualquier sistema de axiomas moderadamente complejo plantea preguntas que los axiomas no pueden responder. De otro lado,la Teoría de la Evolución confirma nuestra oscuridad. Nada nos obliga a pensar que el mundo ha de ser completamente inteligible. Al menos para nosotros, simios pensantes. Al menos en relación a lo que nosotros, simios pensantes, entendemos por inteligibilidad.
En resolución. Un nuevo humanismo debería comenzar por una cura de modestia, y quizá abjurando del mismo y arrogante concepto de humanismo, el que coloca al animal humano como centro y referencia de todo lo que existe. Un nuevo humanismo, compatible con la sensibilidad metafísica, no puede ponerse de espaldas a la ciencia. Naturalmente, no se trata de incurrir en el oscurantismo pseudocientífico denunciado por Alan Sokal y Jean Bricmont en su conocido libro Imposturas intelectuales. No hay que usar la jerga científica en contextos que no le corresponden. Tampoco se trata de caer en un relativismo epistémico radical (que surge de una mala digestión de las obras de Kuhn y Feyerabend), ni de creer que la ciencia es una mera narración, o una pura construcción social. Ni de buscar síntesis atolondradas entre Ciencia y Mística. La tarea es previa y más respetuosa con la autonomía de la ciencia. Se trata de conocer de verdad nuestros condicionamientos esenciales. Se trata de que los paradigmas científicos fecunden realmente a los discursos filosóficos e incluso literarios.
Ello es que es la totalidad de la cultura la que permanentemente está en juego y se renueva. Se renueva desde la interfecundación de las distintas disciplinas. Hoy procede, incluso, elaborar un nuevo concepto de los "textos sagrados" que no hay que ir a buscar donde las fuentes están ya secas. Por ejemplo, ¿llegará algún día en que algún Sumo Pontífice de la Iglesia católica escriba algo verdaderamente inspirado, algo real, sin esos horribles amaneramientos de los documentos oficiales? No parece probable, y tampoco hace falta. Los verdaderos "textos sagrados" de la tradición occidental son, desde hace siglos, los de los grandes autores. Platón y Aristóteles, Dante y Shakespeare. Pero también Victoria, Bach, Haendel, Beethoven. Y Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. Y Arquímedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. Y Paul Celan y Bela Bartok. Etcétera. Todos ellos son "autores sagrados". Canónicos. La Física Cuántica es un monumento no menos inspirado que la Biblia. Ni menos ambiguo. Escribe el científico Arthur I. Miller: "Como una gran obra literaria, la teoría cuántica está abierta a multitud de interpretaciones".
Se equivocan pues quienes oponen la ciencia a los textos sagrados, o la ciencia al arte. Respetando los correspondientes ámbitos de autonomía, todo forma parte de un mismo prodigioso forcejeo. La persecución de lo real. Que en cierto modo es también la persecución de lo absoluto. Lo absoluto que se presiente, aunque sea inaccesible. Ciertamente, la fusión de saberes como en el Renacimiento ya no es posible. La montaña de la especialización es demasiado alta. Ahora bien, cabe hacer que los diferentes saberes "comuniquen". Comuniquen sin "reducirse" los unos a los otros. Es el meollo de lo que Edgar Morin ha llamado "transdisciplinariedad", la que, sin buscar un principio unitario de todos los conocimientos (lo cual también sería reduccionismo), aspira a una comunicación entre las disciplinas sobre la base de un pensamiento "complejo". Ni todo es física, ni todo es biología, ni todo es sociología, ni todo es antropología; pero cabe enlazar estas áreas cibernéticamente.
¿Enciclopedismo? Más bien puesta en ciclo del bucle físico/biológico/social/antropológico. Ello es que las grandes preguntas se renuevan, el tema de la condición humana está en juego y la permeabilidad entre ciencias, artes y letras se convierte en una exigencia central de nuestro tiempo.