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Why Science Should Warm Our Hearts

By Colin Tudge

I love science. It is what I have always done. I remember the warmth I nursed for weeks when, aged 13, I qualified for an advanced science program, already specializing at that tender age. I can still get the same thrill from some books and laboratories, when ideas are neat and properly decorated.

Science is not an innately arrogant pursuit. Sir Isaac Newton said that science was for the glory of God—the God-given intellect dedicated to the glorification of God's works. We need not embrace the theological language of the 17th century, but the sentiment is precisely right. It is shared by many a modern scientist: that the true purpose of science is not to change the universe or to make it more comfortable but to appreciate it more fully. Science has risen gloriously to the challenge: The universe that is now revealed, and the creatures within it, are infinitely more various and intricate than human beings ever conceived of without the help of science, and best of all is the realization that so much is still to be done.

Science, in short, should be heartwarming, encapsulating precisely that love of scholarship for its own sake (or, as Newton and many a rabbi and mullah would say, for God's sake), which runs through all civilization.

Other people don't see it like this. Science has a macho, gung-ho image. Understanding is not for its own sake but is presented as the means of "conquest"—of the stars, of disease, of whatever. It comes across as a nuts-and-bolts pursuit: regrettably necessary, but posing various threats to the human spirit through its intemperate attacks on traditional beliefs and through its ruthless rationality. We are still locked in the battle of Dionysus, the god representing the irrational and ecstatic, and Apollo, the deity of the rational intellect, with Apollo now cast as a blend of nerd and Dr. Strangelove. Schoolchildren turn away from science, and teachers must be bribed to take it up. For all this, scientists blame the media for their hype and general mischief (although science journalists are excellent); "the public" for its fecklessness and its "ignorance"; and the subject itself because it is too difficult and can properly be understood only by the officially initiated subsection of the intelligentsia.

What I want to suggest—in a spirit of friendliness—is that most of the fault lies with the scientists themselves and, in particular, with those who have tried hardest to be its advocates. Too often, they make science seem arrogant, threatening, pompous but, in the end, naive: all those qualities that non-scientists say they find most repellent. Attempts to lighten it up frequently come across as clownishness—a dangerous quality to link to such obvious power. To some extent, this is just bad PR: There is no need for scientists to attack Christianity or Islam, for example. But the flaw runs deeper. It cannot be put right with a course in media training. The startling truth is that some of the most conspicuous spokespeople for science horribly misrepresent it: what it is, what it is like, what it can helpfully comment upon, and where it should be silent. They have, in fact, misconstrued the nature of their own craft.

What science is was beautifully summarized by the philosopher Karl Popper. An idea can belong to science, he said, only if it is testable. Science is thus composed of testable hypotheses. He went on to say that hypotheses can, in principle, be shown to be false but cannot be shown unequivocally to be true, so "testable hypothesis" became "falsifiable hypothesis." Various philosophers have taken him to task for this—pointing out that it can be just as hard to falsify as to verify. But "testability" carries the day.

This idea is simple but far-reaching. It suggests immediately that science is not anchored, as many perceive it to be, in subject matter: It is not just the sum of chemistry, physics, and biology. Rather, it is a method, an approach, that can include the psychology and behavior of human beings or the policies of a government. Everything is within the compass of science, provided it is testable.

From Popper's notions, too, science emerges as an innately humble pursuit. Science is not an edifice of truth, built stone by stone. It is a landscape painting, never finished: Each addition, each fresh wheelbarrow and bathing goddess, changes the balance of the whole, sometimes beyond rescue so the whole must be started again.

Science's perceived arrogance is doubly unfortunate: It drives people away, and it misrepresents the subject. Even if we reject Popper's strict principle of falsifiability, we see that the "truths" of science, its theories, must always be both partial and provisional. Every idea, no matter how satisfying and complete it seems, is waiting to be knocked off its perch, or at least improved upon. We can be certain, at any one time, only that there is more to know. All suggestions in the past that such-and-such a subject has been sewn up were invariably followed by the rudest of shocks. A.A. Michelson measured the speed of light in the late 19th century and declared that physics was over but for the dotting of i's; in a decade or two came Einstein and then Max Planck, leading on to quantum mechanics, and the whole universe was up for grabs, as it still is.

At any one time, it is logically impossible to know how much is not known—whether science has already lit up the universe like a football stadium, or merely laid a trail or two across the darkness. Non-scientists who fear that God's mystery has been forever compromised need have no fears; in the end, there is always mystery. Those who suggest that it is blasphemous to probe God's intentions are themselves guilty of blasphemy. God is not a conjuror, whose tricks seem tawdry when exposed. The more you see, the more wondrous it all becomes.

In short, as Isaac Newton and most of his contemporaries saw (including Galileo, who was a good Catholic), it is remarkably simple to reconcile excellent science with religion. Much of the essence of religion is to experience first the awe and then the sense of reverence that should follow from it. Science inspires in just this way.

Why, then, does science allow itself to be seen as the natural enemy of religion, and thus antagonize so many people for no good reason at all? Yes, there are some serious conflicts. The clash between Darwin and Genesis, for example, lies not in the details of geology, for Genesis can be seen as a good first draft, made in the virtual absence of data (or any inkling of "testable hypothesis"). The clash is as the American philosopher Daniel Dennett describes it in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Orthodox Christians of the 19th century argued, as philosopher John Locke had done in the 17th, that intelligent beings could not be made except by an even more intelligent Creator already in place; but natural selection shows how, in principle, life and then intelligence can emerge from simple beginnings, with no overseer at all. But religion as a whole does not rest on that one piece of theology; and in general, given that religion is innately untestable, it remains outside the purlieus of science. There can be spats, but there is no mortal conflict in which to engage.

Science can indeed be very hard—but for many different reasons, and it is important to distinguish them. It is hard because there is so much of it, and different bits depend on other bits, so it takes a long time to get into. But then, the same is true of any subject, from music to Spanish conversation. It is esoteric—meaning you have to know the background before you can come to grips with the matter in hand. Again, this is true of everything. Much of science, such as immunology, is complicated. But so is gardening—yet it is not innately difficult. Some science, such as quantum mechanics, is truly counter-intuitive. But scientists, too, have difficulty with this: As Niels Bohr said, if you think it is easy, you haven't understood the problem. Or as a professor of physics once told me when I asked him how he pictured a nine-dimensional universe: "You don't. You just do the mathematics." Mathematics is always a problem because the human brain is not geared to it. We are nature's wordsmiths. But some spectacularly good scientists have also been spectacularly bad mathematicians. Darwin regretted his own innumeracy. Michael Faraday, a visionary physicist, pleaded forlornly for "plain words." There are very few Newtons around, able to invent a new form of mathematics (calculus, in his case) when the traditional kinds prove inadequate.

In short, scientists also have trouble with the problems in science that are really hard. Most of them, like most of us, see only as far as the geniuses allow them to see. Indeed, take away the top 20 geniuses from the past 400 years and we would still be living in the 17th century, with the clever but stilted physics of Robert Boyle and John Ray's natural history. On the other hand, once the big ideas are explained, then some of them at least—including those of biology, which impact most directly on our lives—are actually rather easy. Natural selection can be explained in five minutes (although it has taken 140 years so far to work through the connotations); and Mendel's experiments with peas, the basis of all subsequent genetics, seem so simple that we may wonder what the fuss was about. In fact, Mendel's was the simplicity of genius. But we lesser mortals can wallow in his vision, just as we do in Mozart and Picasso. We don't have to belong to a special club to take part. Insisting on the difficulty looks very like an attempt to protect the high priesthood. But those who build walls invite graffiti.

Scientists must loosen up. It is false, for example, to suggest, as they sometimes have, that people who do not practice science have no right to comment at all and get it wrong when they do. The corollary, that scientists can be relied upon to get it right, is equally false. To be sure, there would be no science at all without scientists; but that does not mean that science belongs to them, any more than art belongs to artists, or politics to politicians. Science's greatest quality is that it does not rely upon authority, at least in principle. Its ideas are explicit, laid out for universal scrutiny. Only religion is arcane, and can make a virtue of this. To insist on the specialness of scientists, and to appeal to their authority, is to adopt the methods of religion at its most pristine, where all ideas must be filtered through the chosen few. If everyone comments on science, then many silly things will be said. But that is what it means for a subject truly to be part of culture.

When they are drawn into public debate, scientists, like all of us, should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We have been treated again and again to the stock phrase: "There is no evidence that". "I have never heard anyone add: "But absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." Without that codicil, we do not have the whole truth.

Science needs a new image. Its Apollonic rationality is wonderful at its best, clear and pure. Beware, though, what has lately been called "the rationalistic fallacy." That it is rational does not make it right, or good, or necessarily better than some impassioned, if badly articulated, instinct. Besides, science has a romantic face, too. It is methodical, but it does not simply grind to its conclusions. Creativity matters at least as much as in the arts: huge leaps of imagination that come from nowhere.

All in all, we need much more than committees and professors for the public understanding of science, lectures to the unwashed masses. We need a different kind of science education. Science should not be taught simply as an apprenticeship—which, more often than not, remains the case—but as a significant slice of cultural history and a way of looking at the world.

Colin Tudge is the author of In Mendel's Footnotes: Genes and Genetics from the 19th Century to the 22nd (Jonathan Cape, 2001). This is a somewhat abridged version of an article that first appeared in The New Statesman and is reprinted with permission.