WHAT SCIENTISTS HAVE TO LEARN
by Robert M. Young
I cannot remember when I was not interested in science. I recalled that the first (I later realised it was the second) club I belonged to was set up to pursue science electricity. The Christmas present I valued most in primary school was a chemistry set. I studied natural sciences throughout school and university, stayed for an extra year exclusively devoted to them and then entered an extremely academic medical school where we took the same courses in medical sciences as people pursuing doctorates. I enjoyed all of those studies. I admire science and scientists, am very respectful of what science and other forms of expertise have done and are likely to do for humanity. My own life has been dramatically saved at least twice by alert doctors, as have those of a number of lovedones, one of whom is becoming a doctor. I am a passionate consumer of certain technologies, an ardent watcher of programmes about science and a devoted student of scientific and technological achievements.
And yet I come here today having to discipline myself to be civil. Whenever I hear or read certain phrases such as the public understanding of science and the image of science I want to be rude and scatological. I think of the people who work under their banners in the most unflattering terms toadying and sycophantic, dupes and opportunists even when they are friends and former students of mine. I am not alone in the academic community in holding this view: I note the absence of the entire staff of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (housed in this building) from our proceedings here today. I dare say that they have stayed away voluntarily because of their views on the public understanding of science movement or that communicatrion between academic scholars and this group is so bad that they dont even know of this meeting. [I later learned that the latter explanation was the right one.] I experience the work done in this area as inimical to human survival, well-being and civility. I think of the scientists who foster this work as smug, uncritical, boorish (sometimes twice over boor and Boer) and contemptuous of people in other serious disciplines who are deserving of their respect and from whom they have much to learn, rather than being patronising toward them. I also wonder why the media go on putting before us spokespeople who are miles from the most interesting current debates about science and society. The disciplines where those debates are taking place are the history, philosophy and social studies of science and critiques of science and scientific rationality, as well as related approaches to technology, medicine and other forms of expertise.
I have been practising as a psychotherapist long enough to recognise much of what I have just said as consisting of perhaps more than a grain of truth but also as embedded in a regrettable reprojection That is, when one is denigrated and has demeaning and scatological epithets fired into ones mind and at ones lifes work, it is almost impossible to refrain from saying, as if in the schoolyard, Youre another and, alas, often adding amplification in the form of And sos your mum, or words to that effect (Young, 1992).
Something similar happens on public occasions when these matters are debated. I speak with some authority here, since I am a fairly frequent participant in such debates: today is one of them, and I see here people with whom I have discussed these and related matters several times in recent months, notably under various BBC 2 Late Show television auspices. In my experience, these programmes are invariably set up in an unhelpful way, one which was epitomised some months ago when I tried to make a point which I thought had some subtlety, whereupon the moderator, Mark Lawson, turned to Bob Williamson and translated what I had said into a sentence that asked him if he thought of himself as Baron von Frankenstein. The details dont matter. What is important is that these occasions are structured adversarially dochotomously and there are powerful structural causes which lead the participants to play out the implicit scripts which the situation prestructures. Not only are the line-ups cast in those terms; the conventions of television and the time-frame of the programmes call for pithy sound bytes. I have learned this the hard way from being interviewed alone and asked what I think about this or that, only to be told afterwards that only suitable bytes were to be used, woven in the editing process into an adversarially-structured whole. I take it that this is thought to meet certain norms of being entertaining. I think it fosters a dialogue of the deaf.
As you have already seen and as some of my old friends and students will tell you, I am not a stranger to blunt and aggressive ways of putting things, but I am also capable of more reflective and exploratory ones. But if you put me third or fourth in line in a discussion kicked off by a truly Canute-like scientist who slags off whole disciplines (I have Lewis Wolpert in mind) or by one (viz. Richard Dawkins on a recent Late Show) who offers the hypothesis that the spread of fads, religion and cultural phenomena can be illuminated by epidemiological models used in the study of viral diseases and even calls culture a collection of viruses and closes by reflecting on how long it may take to develop a vaccine (n.b., a vaccine against culture, implying that it is a disease), Ill be straining at the leash by the time I get to make my bytes.
Thats what I will be likely to do, but what I will be feeling is something altogether different. Ill be feeling forlorn and saying to myself and to the producer in response to his or her thank-you letter, I wish we hadnt started from there and that something more open-ended and facilitating had been set up more like open ended format of After Dark or an exploratory dialogue. Id love to take part in a programme where I am in a discussion with one or two people, thinking gently together. What I mean by not starting from here is that I would like, for a change, to begin with the point of view of the critique of the self-consciousness of scientists rather than ending up there after wading through a lot of tedious set-pieces and reassurances that one is not being utterly irrationalist, relativist and opposed to progress and the alleviation of suffering. As things are, by the time the programme is over I feel lucky to have got to square one of my own agenda.
But thats only for starters. I made a series of documentaries which were shown in the first year of Channel Four, and the process of making them is why I went into psychoanalysis and became a publisher of books. That is, I found television so competitive and full of snarling careerists, liars and opportunists that I was driven to despair and became an analytic patient and then a therapist and in my intellectual work decided to go for the narrowcasting of the printed word. Of course, similar things can be said about academic life (including and especially under the auspices of the Wellcome Trust, but thats another story) and of publishing and come to that of the world of psychotherapy (Young, 1990). I have reluctantly concluded that these ways of behaving are characteristic of human nature on the hoof (Young, 1994). But that does not mean that we should give up. I think the printed word (surely one of the media we should be here to talk about) is more hospitable to flexible ways of being ruminative and communicating, and I do what I can to facilitate enlightenment in this domain, for example, by founding, editing, subsidising and contributing to journals and other publications. However, there are pressures here, as well, especially those of profitability. I have spent the last decade working as an editor and publisher. I have been responsible for the appearance of about two hundred volumes books and issues of quarterly periodicals and have lost about a million pounds, an average of five thousand pounds per volume. Some came from friends and family, some from well-wishers, most out of my own hide, and I will almost certainly die before all the debts are paid off. I have recently brought in a distinguished and enlightened publisher to be managing director, and the process of rapprochement with the consensus is already well under way in both the way we work and what it is thought sensible to publish and at what price. Profit is a likely consequence.
Even so, I continue to think the conditions of production of the printed word are more accommodating than television. I think radio is somewhere in between and long for the kinds of slots that used to be commonplace on the BBC Radios Third Programme. I hope and trust that some of the airtime coming on stream as new stations are commissioned will be devoted to exploratory discussions about science and related issues. (Anything, please, rather than more phone-in trivia.) I gather that in America non-commercial and local television stations have managed to make a good deal of space for such discussions. Looking ahead, I feel that relatively low-cost computer dissemination, use of videos, interactive discs and other digital technologies will provide even more and cheaper spaces. To tell the truth, I feel sure that we have more facilitative technologies available to us at this moment than we make use of. I am thinking of common-or-garden compact cassettes and videos. Why are there not networks creating, disseminating, copying and swapping them? I suspect and I include myself in this indictment that we dont believe in ourselves enough and wait to be tapped by the official media before we believe we have much to say or the means of disseminating our ideas. We do not sufficiently take these matters into our own hands. It may seem ironic for me to say this, since I have played a significant part in creating a number of cultural spaces for such debates. But I do say it of sound and visual technologies and would like to raise the question of our timidity as one topic for todays discussion. I am also particularly intrigued by the worlds opened up by computer modems and world-wide networks accessible down every phone line. Floppy and interactive disc technologies seem to me to open up lovely, relatively inexpensive narrowcasting possibilities for paper-less publishing. These communications media are not yet central to my practice, but I hope and believe that they will soon become so.
In considering these alternatives I am still reflecting on whats wrong with the treatment of issues connected with science on television and in places like the New Scientist, where it seems obvious to me they should be debated but for the most part are not. I co-wrote a long critique of science on TV over a decade ago. It was printed in an Open University reader (Gardner and Young, 1981), but I have never had a dickey-bird in reply. I was too shattered to write about my experience making a dozen hour-long documentaries in the series called Crucible: Science in Society (except for a short piece in educational newsletter entitled Television: The Dense Medium Young, 1986), and until today no one has asked me what I think. I find this odd, since I think I am right in saying that our series was the best-resourced alternative perspective in the history of the medium (at least up until then). I do not say it was the best. I unreservedly pass that accolade to Pandoras Box (which, to be precise, was about scientism - illegitimate extrapolations not science per se). But the Crucible series was important and well-received in certain circles, some of them quite distinguished, and not one has ever been shown again, not even the excellent ones on ideas of nature, human nature, the scientific hero and the scientific management of leisure. I often wonder why. On the other hand, I do not wonder why the Crucible series was succeeded by Equinox, which is highly professional and excellent in its way, but that way goes with the grain of the dominant culture. Genuinely dissident voices are seldom given their own platforms on television, and it is my impression that the growing scope for independent productions leads largely to commissioning the work of slick professionals, not awkward or subversive voices. That is, I think things are getting worse and are likely to get even worse as a result of further conglomeration and commmercialisation.
This leads naturally to another point about television. It is an obvious but deep one. Television is a technology, one with a structure of funding, careers, division of labour and pressures which militate against programmes which go against the grain of the culture. For the most part, editors and producers are employed to see to that. It is not a transparent medium; it is part of the problem. Ways have been found to tell about scandals in science as well as in other spheres. But television, in my experience, is not good at examining frameworks, assumptions, terms of reference. In short, it is excellent at gee whiz, good at criticism and bad at critique. While I was making programmes full time, whenever I tried to talk about matters like funding, for example, the role of the Rockefeller charities, my director (a sympathetic one and still a friend) would say, Where are the pictures? I wanted to go into the archives, show the plans for Rockefeller projects: the Yale Institute of Human Relations, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Tavistock Institute, the creation of sociobiology and molecular biology and the rest of the world-wide conspiracy (a conspiracy which was acknowledged by the patrons and which has been well-documented by many scholars), including the Trilateral Commission, which has fundamentally shaped the natural and social sciences and the caring professions and has created the model for the funding of research throughout the first world. Similar (though smaller-scale) stories could and should be told about the Carnegie, Ford, Wellcome, Macy, Wenner-Gren, and MacArthur Foundations and other patrons, but its not suitably visual. Why not? They can do documentaries about financial conspiracies. Why not scientific ones and ones about patronage? The science we get is the science which is funded. Lets look closely at that process.
And there is something deeper than that, for which I fear I am unable to find words. It is the point where the metaphysics of television as a technology intersect the critique of the metaphysics of science and other forms of expertise (from now on Ill just say science, but what I mean goes for town planning, architecture, accountancy, and professionalism in general) to choke off the imagination. The phrase all thats solid melts into air comes to mind. I will put before you some thoughts from the notes I made in preparing this talk in the hope that they will evoke something in some of you. What I am saying about television is true of other media, but I think it is most disabling with respect to television.
Part of the received false self-consciousness of experts is the belief that what they do is value-neutral but, of course, amenable to use and abuse. They consider anyone who says otherwise is polluting science. I am routinely treated as a polluter. Science is one thing, values another. Science should be distinguished from its applications. Science is objective; culture is subjective. Values are extrinsic to science, intrinsic to society. These shibboleths are part of the fabric of how you treat things in the media. There is a concept of objectivity which is deeply embedded in the documentary tradition which makes it very hard to argue for ways of thinking which challenge the received authority of scientific rationalism. It is one of the proudest boasts of the BBC that it reports the news objectively, and the whole world thanks them for it. I admire it, but this tradition acts as a form of censorship when one is seeking to go deeper and understand how facts get constructed.
On the other hand, for some reason which has already escaped me, it seems okay for a scientist to come along and behave like a nineteenth-century positivist (I mean a follower of Auguste Comte; see Simon, 1963; Kolakowski, 1972) and generate values from facts, as Come did with his proposed religion of humanity. They can pronounce with the authority of an expert on objectivity about all sorts of things and, for the most part, get away with it. They are not only thought expert in rationality; they are thought wise. I am thinking, for example, of some of the sillier pronouncements of Louis Wolpert (who condemns sociology and the philosophy of science out of hand) and Richard Dawkins (who deploys scientistic analogies with touching philosophical simplicity), as well as of the ways scientists from Einstein to Bronowski to Zuckerman to Medawar have been treated as gurus when they hold forth far beyond their areas of undoubted contribution. They offer science as above the battle and as an arbiter of cultural issues in a startling and deeply embarrassing way, and the media producers fawn over them in a way they never do to Edward Said or Raymond Williams (1982, etc.) or Dennis Potter or Richard Rorty (1980, 1982, 1989). I dare say a couple of those names will not be familiar to most scientists, but they all should, even by virtue of C. P. Snows observation that scientists are more likely to know about the striking features of the arts than arts people are to know anything about science (Snow, 1959).
I want some cultural spaces which allow it to be said and explored that values are intrinsic to all forms of expertise. I think science is the embodiment of values in theories, therapies, things, systems, software and institutions. If people understood the history of the metaphysical foundations of science, they would begin to understand this. I think that all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden; all values are part of ideologies or world-views. I think that unless the practitioners of science are as well-versed in this dimension of what they do as they are in, say, the calculus, DNA, fundamental particles, thermodynamics, information systems and so on, the world is going to hell in a wheelbarrow. I think that the relationship between science and democracy is completely unsorted-out and that we will destroy the planet and perhaps much more unless we get that relationship right. The future the very existence of life depends, urgently depends, on it.
I think we need to understand how societies constitute, evoke and valorise research priorities and the criteria for acceptable answers (Young, 1979). This is a deeply cultural enquiry, and a few people have begun to show how this process occurs and how it might be done better. I am thinking pre-eminently on the work of Donna Jean Haraway (1989, 1990, 1992) on the creation of the discipline of primate studies but also her essays on the processes of scientific research in general, for which I believe she deserves a Nobel Prize (Young, 1992a). I do not think one should be at the bench in science without a deep understanding of moral, ethical, social, cultural, ideological, economic and political issues. Science is too important to leave to people who have had more than half of their minds split off from what they do for a living. I think we must think anew about the concept of accountability.
I think that young people have more than a dim sense of these matters and that more and more of them are voting with their feet into more avowedly value-oriented careers or into cynicism. They dont like much of what they know about what science and other forms of expertise have wrought. They do know that much of what is here or around the corner has not been adequately thought through with respect to the human parameters consequences, side effects. Think of all the times we have been told that things are safe when they turned out not to be. I am thinking of Windscale, Chernobyl, the silent spring, pollution, antibiotic resistance, tardive dyskinesia, thalidomide, and much, much more, while what has been achieved is shamelessly hyped, for example AZT, which, as a Wellcome product, subsidises us at todays conference. (Am I alone in finding the opulence of this, the Wellcome Building, difficult to reconcile with a notion of service to humanity by means of the alleviation of suffering?) But, as importantly, I am thinking about the increasing access to parameters of the constitution of what it means to be a person with this or that attribute and how research priorities and applications get grotesquely distorted by economic forces which militate for a saleable commodity or a competitive edge. I am not against gene therapy for cystic fibrosis or Huntingdons chorea or Tay Sachs disease or perhaps hypertension or diabetes. I hate being put in a false dichotomy about scientific progress when people have got such a therapy waiting to be deployed, yet the society and culture have not thought deeply enough about the context into which it is to be introduced.
I am saying that we need a coherent education system in which science and values are part of a single framework of ideas. To understand how values ever got sequestered, we have to teach the philosophy of nature at a very early age. I am thinking of the profound writings of Edwin Arthur Burtt (1932) and Alfred North Whitehead (1925) on the metaphysical debates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the consequences for understanding nature, life and human nature. In particular, I am thinking about the banishment of the final causes of the Aristotelian tradition. This was a con trick. They never went away but have been sequestered. They are still at work sub rosa in all the splitting into dichotomies which characterise the official version of these matters. Values, use values, purposes, ideologies and politics are at work at every level of science and other forms of expertise. I say again: the teleology of Aristotle never went away. It just went into the back room and into the relatively inaccessible process of the constitution of research conceiving problems and patronage, for example (Young, 1979a, 1989, 1993). We should consider philosophy, morality and cultural studies as three of the four legs of a stool on which we seat our specialisms. No more tripos. We need a more stable stool.
I also think most scientists are a bit weird and that many go into maths, science and technology and even medicine because they do not feel able to deal with feelings. I am sure of this with respect to every famous scientist I have ever known, and I have been close to a goodly number. (One particularly nasty one who was routinely scathing about philosophy of science and the arts got so contemptuous that hardly anyone could stand him. I think he ended up unable to stand himself. He secretly went into Jungian analysis and is now a lot nicer fellow.) These people are weird but end up with our lives in their hands in a number of senses. It is not smart for a society to do this. The media of film and drama understand how odd scientists and the scientific world view are, and thats why they go on depicting scientists the way they do from Paracelsus and Faustus to Baron von Frankenstein to The Island of Dr Moreau to all those Basil Rathbones, Boris Karloffs, Peter Cushings and Vincent Prices and on to Jeff Goldbloom (as Jim Watson, as The Fly and as the cynical hired scientist in Jurassic Park) and so on. The wider culture is not misinformed. They know that the moral senses of scientists are usually stunted because of their tendency to cut themselves off, their lopsided education and their preoccupation with research and career.
For this reason, I want to include an understanding, both theoretical and practical, of psychodynamics and group relations in the education of scientists (Young, 1992, 1993a). I want us to look carefully at the way scientists live and work and conduct their lives and what should be done about it. The requirements of the research, the next post, the next grant are, I believe, even more pressing and blinkering than they are in other niches of the division of labour. Everyone knows this about medical education and training. It is not so well-researched and understood in physics, chemistry, molecular biology and engineering. This needs to change. I also think that scientists except when they are doing PR or speaking at prize-giving ceremonies know perfectly that they are utterly immersed in the same cultural, economic and other conflicts, contradictions and compromises as the rest of us. They hustle - more and more as governments squeeze them. They really must give up their false-self facades.
I dont think what is important in these matters is that science has an image problem or that the public doesnt understand it enough. I think it has to clean up its act and that the first step in doing this is to realise that it is not the arbiter of culture or above the battle but that it is a renegade part of culture, naive and simplistic in its approach to the rest of human meaning and needs to stop putzing around like a perpetual Bar Mitzvah boy, who was, after all, only supposed to be smartypants for a day and thereafter to move toward responsible maturity.
I grew up in a locale where plain speaking and bearing witness to the truth as best as one could discern it were highly valued. I hope my audience will bear that in mind while pondering what I have said.
This is the revised text of a talk given at a conference on the Changing Image of Science: The Role of the Media and Education, sponsored by the British Universities Film and Video Council in association with the Wellcome Trust, at the Wellcome Building, London, 15 December 1993.
(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.)
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM