The Fascism of Knowing Stuff

WARNING – EXPECT AWFUL GRAMMAR (HASTE TO POST OVERTOOK REQUIREMENT TO FOLLOW THE RULES OF LANGUAGE, SORRY)

Last weekend I spent some of my time drinking beer and talking to Sir Peter Blake about Kendo Nagasaki. This weekend I spent an hour biting into a pen like a shire horse as my brain failed to comprehend a journalist I was sitting next to. I was at QEDcon, on a panel entrusted with the subject “Is Science the New Religion?”

It is the sort of title popular with media folk, like “is comedy the new rock and roll?” or “is knitting the new psoriasis?”

The answer to “is science the new religion?” is obviously yes, so long as you redefine religion as “a self-correcting, evidence based system of exploring the universe which attempts to unearth the least wrong laws and theories that can explain what exists or might exist whilst accepting that room must always be left for doubt and further enquiry”.
We went off topic pretty soon when the journalist explained that politicians, crippled by uncertainty, were now led by behind the scenes scientists. Whether true or not, the actual evidence offered seemed scant. Something about secondhand smoking and something else about education policy. From my view it seemed that the most that was actually being offered was the idea that MPs might cherry pick data to justify the policies they wished to put into place. This seemed very different to the notion that a muscular cabal of scientists are leading the nation into a dictatorship of evidence under the heavy hand of advanced critical thinking. I won’t dwell on my disagreements with the journalist’s position, hopefully a recording will be available soon and you can make your own judgements and throw a virtual egg or tomato at me via the means of futuristic communication.

Though I spent much of time either startle-eyed or furiously furrowed, as if an invisible Duchenne was experimenting on my face, there was one opinion expressed that continues to haunt me. There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.

I attempted to explain to the journalist that the world we live in has never been more complex or filled with things that require work and patience to understand. Though democracy lovers may shiver at the idea, the penalty for living in the civilisation we currently walk through is that we must sometimes accept our ignorance and defer to others. We can hope that they might be trusted, that the heart surgeon is sober and the climate scientists isn’t swayed by the desire for fame on the front cover of Vanity Fair kissing a Polar Bear.

The journalist suggested this was the kind of fascistic thinking that held up women’s suffrage and the education of the poor. My belief that we are not always equipped to make the best decisions is apparently the alibi that has always been used by people like me who wish to oppress “the common man”. I believe that people should be given as many tools as possible to understand as many complexities of the world as possible, to be armed with knowledge. As William H Calvin wrote, “knowledge is a vaccine”.
But to blithely suggest that that the world is not complex, that expertise is not only not required but a form of oppression, seems to be a position that can only be taken if you are blinkered when progressing through 21st century society. Go back one hundred years and I believe that pretty much any tool or device in your house could be repaired by you with a little ingenuity and swearing. Look at what you have around you now. Look at the device you are reading this on or your television or mobile phone or digital radio, when they cease to function correctly I wonder how many of you would confidently turn to your toolbox, uncover the technology within and effectively repair it. When I picked up the journalist’s ipad, something which seemed to alarm him as if I was a Hyde-ish brute (and I almost was) and declared “mend this”, no answer came forth. Go back a couple of hundred years and there was something closer to a democracy of experts, the downside of this was that medical people couldn’t cure you, the streets had considerably more human excrement in them and life was often cold and short. The price of technology, comfort and hopefully greater understanding of the universe and our place in it is an acceptance that we may not know best in all events and common sense, a hammer and a bag of leeches may not get you through it all.

We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to. If you are really interested in an issue, then you must take time to read and investigate it, to learn how to ask the best questions, to interrogate with interest, open-mindedness and rigour. A good society, a healthy democracy, is not based on complacency and whining.

FOOTNOTE (added 15/4)
This hour continues to haunt me. I have not felt this exasperated since I appeared on a TV debate show with Stephen Green of Christian Voice. I regret (indeed I had forgotten) saying “you’re a fucking idiot” to the journalist near the conclusion of the event. Insomnia, coffee, exasperation, and an audience certainly didn’t turn me into Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.

here is someone else who watched the peculiar show – http://violettacrisis.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/eight-signs-of-bogus-historical.html

I am currently on tour – Finchley, Goole, Sheffield, Alderhot plus many more soon http://www.robinince.com

Most comments will be approved, even the spiteful ones if I am in the mood, though this will probably not be done very quickly due to tour commitments and wifi scarcity.

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141 Responses to The Fascism of Knowing Stuff

  1. flixisart says:

    Too right. One of the reasons I have cancelled my twitter account is that it’s full of people who know EVERYTHING. Plus, conversely, it makes fools of us all (well, me anyway). Don’t desist from blogging, it’s the only place I can tap into your brain :-)

  2. Rick says:

    Superb article.

    If only we DID have a government that made decisions based on science. That would mean taking on board all evidence and using only what works. In fact, we wouldn’t need democracy any more – a government would create jobs, run hospitals, administer taxes, alleviate poverty based only on what the best way to achieve those things would be. Voting might come into play only in deciding what goals and priorities should be, because everyone would by definition agree on what the way to achieve them was (because it would be independently verifiable as the best way).

    The alternative is to put people in government who aren’t experts, who don’t listen to evidence or advice and who make decisions based on ideology and not practicality and theory. Imagine what would happen if someone like that got into, say, running education… oh…

  3. Phil says:

    I disagree, I find that everything I tell people is always correct and never needs further explanation.
    Of course my friend Steve is the complete opposite.

  4. martin says:

    Had similar arguments with people and, to generalise a little, they usually seem to be quite happy to trot out the opinions of ‘experts’ when they agree with their own views. Especially the 9/11 truther crackpots that insist we can’t trust our media but theirs are somehow better.

  5. richggall says:

    I agree with just about everything you’ve said, particularly your ideas on the importance of experts. However, I think you’re missing the point of the ‘science is a new religion’ argument. Yes the phrase is clunky, but I think the argument isn’t against science as such, and against its importance in researching ideas and finding evidence for certain claims. Instead, it is an argument against scientism and against a pervasive belief that science has ‘All The Answers’.
    This belief is formed on a misunderstanding of the scientific method (as I understand it at least, science isn’t about finding all the answers to our problems, but instead a way of testing hypotheses about the world around us), but it is nevertheless a perception that I think dominates the dominant discourse of public intellectual life.
    I think the point about MPs cherry picking data from scientific research is an interesting one and demonstrates my point. The problem, in this case, isn’t with science or scientists, but rather the way that science is used and manipulated to fit particular policy aims or ideologies. Science, or rather scientism could in this sense be seen as like a religion in that it becomes a short hand way of backing up beliefs, and making the actions that result from them appear necessary and natural.
    Perhaps science has become the new religion because in cases like this scientific research has been taken out of the specific context (of research). It subsequently becomes a vague way of supporting particular ideas and beliefs – a little like a religious belief.

    • Mapo says:

      I found you slightly missing the point about the title. Science is (indeed, as you point out), a method more than anything else, and there is no other method available (not now, not before), to compare not just facts, but also opinions and take personal but more importantly collective decisions. For example, scientific research is basically a database of info and throwing it into a discussion about a method is probably misleading (at least for the laymen) but also surely unhelpful. Science has not ALL the answers but there is anything that can bring anyone closer to any answer yet. Because without a factual basis, every single opinion, past present or future, is going to be just what it is really: a personal opinion (i.e., religions…). And in total fairness, every opinion counts exactly as any other…

      • richggall says:

        What I’m saying is that this idea that everything has a factual basis which can be backed up by evidence and facts is simply not true. I understand the principle of evidence based decision making and forming an opinion based on scientific research but there is a point at which science cannot, in fact help with these questions. Science cannot be the guiding principle behind collective decision making – the ‘facts’ about the world built up by scientific investigation do not carry any compulsion to act (it does not imply ought etc.). It is this idea that science is the only method for trying to understand the world that is incorrect.
        Although I understand your final point about opinions lacking factual basis, this is a misunderstanding of the value of an opinion and an overestimation of the value of scientific fact. Indeed, you could turn around your point about personal opinions being nothing more than personal opinions without facts by saying that facts, without opinions are nothing more than facts.
        By this I mean that scientific facts have no meaning in and of themselves – something has to happen to them after being established as facts to take on any significance (something outside of science and the scientific method).
        What I mean is that science is not the horizon of all meaning and all opinions – it is something very specific. Scientism – or the accusation that science is the new religion is what happens when science becomes this horizon, when the need for scientific facts and evidence becomes a substitute for any other kinds of thought.
        Science can take us close to answering many problems – mainly those of the natural world. But there is a whole range of things that it will never be unable to answer, not because it is not good enough but simply because it is not part of its ‘jurisdiction’ (it can’t answer questions about ethics, politics, aesthetics etc).

        Sorry that was long, hope you understand what I’m getting at. I liked Robin’s points but I think arguments about scientism aren’t being understood – and aren’t being articulated properly. I certainly don’t think the journalist Robin was talking to had much idea of what he was talking about anyway.

      • phasespace says:

        This is actually a response to Rich. Most scientists, including myself, will tell you that scientism doesn’t exist for the very reasons that you are pointing out. When it comes to public policy decisions, or even personal decisions, science doesn’t automatically tell you what you should do.

        However, it is also silly to conclude that science can’t (or shouldn’t) inform these decisions. Taking a long and critical look at the reality around us is what science does, and in doing so, it can even allow us to take decent stabs at predicting the outcomes of different decisions. It is at this point of judging the outcomes that ethics and politics come in to play. However, if you ignore what science might tell you here, then you are making ethical or political judgements about stuff that may be utter nonsense.

        In just about every case of supposed scientism that I’ve encountered, the accuser is almost always missing this aspect of what science supporter is trying to tell them, and I think it is something that people making accusations about scientism should be taking to heart.

    • I don’t think anyone who knows anything at all about science, or the scientific method believes that science “has all the answers”. Was Darwin 100% correct in all of his assertions? No, but he certainly pointed us in the right direction. We observed. We experimented. In the process, we found out things he couldn’t have possibly have known. This is opposed to religion, which often takes a 180 degree view, and presents it as immutable truth.

      • Daniel says:

        It appears you two are talking past each other.

        Does science operate like religion with respect to evidence, empiricism, doubt and “truth”? – Of COURSE not.

        But do “the common people” overestimate / misunderstand the infallibility of the scientific method and replace “God says so” with “science says so” when they want to argue for or against something? – There might be a point to studying that.

        So basically, the headline might read “Is science the new authority that people use to support their opinions, true or otherwise? Maybe.”

        Although I’d say the early 20th century was probably a time when hopes in science and technology were substantially more positive uncritical.

        Have a great day!

    • Oli Comber says:

      It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in science; science believes in you.

    • =8)-DX says:

      @richggall
      I think you might have made a blunder in one sentence of yours: “this idea that everything has a factual basis which can be backed up by evidence and facts is simply not true.” Everything that we know *exists* has a factual basis that is supported by evidence. Yes, for sure there are some things we don’t know exist, and we don’t have evidence for them, but I think that apart from religion it can be generally agreed that pretending things exist, about which we know nothing, or for which we have no evidence is pointless.
      Perhaps what you wanted to say is that there are things about which we don’t know enough (for instance economic and political systems, human psychology) to be able to extract precise answers from the evidence alone, using scientific knowledge alone. Yes, and in this case we use inference, reason and logic and we try to approximate the best answer. But in no situations does inserting more scientific knowledge into problem, reduce our ability to make correct decisions.
      What you describe as “scientism” seems to me just shorthand for psuedoscience. Things like popular writups of evolutionary psychology that the public then banter about as if it were fact could be attributed to overzealous acceptance of science, but this is in the same pot as things like homeopathy, chakras and “spirit healing” or Deepak Chopra. In other words people’s gulliblity exploited often *in the name of science*, presented *as science* (by “doctors”, using words like “quantum”, “natural healing”).
      In short, the whole scientism: “science is the new religion” thing is nonsense, because the in fact it’s the other way round – another case of fallacious, superstious and scientifically disproven nonsense similar to religion, only this time pretending to be the real stuff: science.

  6. John says:

    As usual you are correct and you should not make a habit of it! I was pondering the point when I saw the tweets between you and Prof Cox and had concluded that if science is the new religion then doctors, surgeons, aerospace engineers, IT technology experts, to name but a few, are the ‘idols’ of this modern society which the vast majority of us rely upon and ‘worship’. To sneer at those with knowledge and expertise is to deny the advances made in the past 100+ years which have lifted us from a very uncomfortable existence to relative luxury. Further, if the developing world aspires to share in those luxuries it is not the luddites, uninformed, manufacture of stone age tools or herbal remedies that will get them there.

  7. Brian3951 says:

    I have been trying for years to prove that it is engineering and it’s study that provides the bedrock for society and it’s future and that we should listen and learn. Unfortunately some of the media fail to listen and therefore do not understand. A terrible failing in today’s media.

  8. twmcarnabwth says:

    it’s often the dellingpoles of the world who come out with this sort of stuff. They’re the first to balk at the idea of a move away from representative democracy and would certainly have voted no to AV or whatever else comes along. I know that experts aren’t really analogous to elected representatives, but there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance from anti-science conservative commentators.

  9. Blue Moon says:

    Great LOGIC with humour. Well done.

  10. Zeno Ferox says:

    As usual, it’s some caricature of scientists and “experts” that people recoil against — rather than the reality. My father is a classic case, angrily denouncing scientists “who claim to know everything!” whenever he sees a news item about evolution, cosmology, or climate change. His imagined “scientists” are all strawmen, whom he pretends to quote saying things that no scientist ever says, as if men and women of science spend all of their time making definitive magisterial statements. Dad has slain many imaginary demons this way. His old love of knowledge and learning has run into and been demolished by his current tea-party irrationality.

  11. Heather Pentler says:

    I watched the recording of your panel last night. I find it amazing you were so restrained. Would you like us to get a rush on getting the recording out?

  12. Martin says:

    I would agree mostly BUT there are way too many scientists in the mainstream who wouldn’t even look at lots of good research if it doesn’t fit, or is too far outside their current paradigm. Therefore that research never gets peer reviewed or accepted as a credible area or study EVEN if the evidence is compelling and worthy of further study. That is dogmatic and totally against what science is, BUT the science community is unfortunately rife with such “Scientists”. People seemed to have stopped questioning what they learned from a “Professor” at university as though everything they are taught is beyond question or further research. Don’t even get me started on the financial and political influences in science…. Science is being tarnished.

    • PatrickG says:

      There are certainly examples of paradigm-shifting research being rejected by the old guard — see Pasteur — but this is not a basis on which to issue a blanket condemnation of “Scientists” and “Professors”. Your complaint seems to boil down to the issue that some scientific communities at some point aren’t FAST enough to accept revolutionary new ways of thinking.

      Let me underscore that: not FAST enough. Germ theory isn’t exactly disputed at this point; in fact, thousands of scientists now work in related fields!

      You’ll have to be a bit more specific about what research and paradigm-shifting material is currently being ignored for me to take this very seriously. Forgive me if I harbor suspicion that you’re into acupuncture or homeopathy.

      • Martin says:

        You got me,

        Im a druid wizard specialising in acupuncture, homeopathy and blood letting. It renders me unable to read research which shows good repeatable evidence that is totally ignored by the scientific community.

        Cell Pump Theory is one area. I am in NO WAY saying that Dr Gilbert Ling is right in his “Association Induction Hypothesis” as it seems incomplete BUT he very clearly demonstrated over several decades of accumulated experimentation that “Cell Pump Theory” is not supported by the evidence. He showed several ways in which this theory doesn’t work.
        A damning demonstration is that If a cell has “Pumps”, those pump should only work when a cell is alive and functioning. Hair is composed of dead cells, but if washed of all sodium and potassium, and then dipped in a solution of sodium and potassium it takes up far more potassium than sodium, so does dead hair contain sodium-potassium pumps? The answer can only be a resounding NO. As I said, this is only one way in which the theory isn’t supported by the evidence. This is concerning as our current medical practices are based on this and many other basic accepted “Theories”

        There are plenty of other ideas that many scientists don’t even entertain thanks to their dogmatism. There are a lot of good scientists out there but the idea of “Science” is tarnished by those who do not deserve the label.

        The area of Medical science is in a terrible state thanks to the heavy political and financial influence of the pharmaceutical firms – I believe cancer research is heading in a very wrong direction, the focus being genetics where the focus should be in the area of cell metabolism. Doctors encouraging and fear mongering young women into mutilating themselves because they have a “Gene” that “guarantees” they will get cancer. Otto Warburg (Nobel prize winner) and Albert Szent-Gyorgyi made leaps and bounds in the area of cancer and its triggers and its clear relation to metabolism, but again – The medical industry has ignored their research for decades.
        Thomas N Seyfried has recently published a book on cancer as a Metabolic disease. He too is not really being taken very seriously. The strong held belief that cancer is purely a genetic disease has been demonstrated over and over again to be incorrect. But of course the research must be flawed and incorrect as it hasn’t been “Peer verified” – Read “Ignored”.

        I think im done here as both of us probably have better, more productive things to do. I have probably already labeled in the “Quackery” category and I doubt my views on a blog would change anyones mind.

        I will take a quote from “Phil” below;

        ” To suggest that science is “a self-correcting, evidence based system of exploring the universe which attempts to unearth the least wrong laws and theories that can explain what exists or might exist whilst accepting that room must always be left for doubt and further enquiry” is naive in the extreme.” This very much applies to Biology, Physics and chemistry.

        “Once we accept that knowledge is tentative, and that we are probably going to improve our knowledge in important ways when we learn more about the world, we are less likely to reject new information that conflicts with our present ideas. The attitude of expectancy will allow us to apply insights gained at one level of generality to other levels. No particular kind of knowledge will have such authority that it will automatically exclude certain possibilities in another field of knowledge.” – Ray Peat

      • PatrickG says:

        “The strong held belief that cancer is purely a genetic disease has been demonstrated over and over again to be incorrect.”

        Er. If you think the scientific community holds that cancer is purely a genetic disease, then you’re already not reading peer-reviewed journals, and I really have no response to you there. Or have you not heard of carcinogenic compounds? Cosmic radiation? Etc. Now, what seems beyond dispute is that susceptibility to cancer is heavily influenced (again, INFLUENCED) by genetics. Perhaps someone with more expertise can weigh in, but a quick google search generates many, many accredited sources (say, NASA, articles at PubMed, and so forth) immediately disproving your assertion.

        I don’t know anything about Cell Pump theory — I’m not a biologist — but the first thought that came to mind was capillary action. It’s a principle used in myriad fields. I’d have to see some actual papers on the subject, not just a categorical assertion that the only way liquid can be “sucked” into an empty space is due to cell pumping action. Since, you know, that’s not true. Or at least, numerous groundwater and filtration experts would be astonished to learn this New Truth that disproves their fields, too. :)

    • Nullifidian says:

      Therefore that research never gets peer reviewed or accepted as a credible area or study EVEN if the evidence is compelling and worthy of further study.

      I’ve never seen anybody make this assertion who was then capable of showing that hypotheses supported by compelling evidence have been rejected by the scientific journals. Perhaps you are different. So which specific well-founded and well-supported research are you talking about, and how do you know that “the evidence is compelling and worthy of further study”?

      Frankly, this emphasis on peer review is only made by non-scientists. Those of us who are in the field know that by the time a paper makes it through the publication process, most of the people in the field have already heard of it and discussed its contents. Preprints, conference presentations, and general scientific chit chat are the main ways of conveying information. Journals publications are a nice to have on your c.v., and if you’re lucky your work will be written about and cited by scientists for decades so it’s good to have it archived, but for cutting-edge science journals are already yesterday’s news. If your anonymous scientists are having so much trouble with the ossified prejudices of those darned reviewers, then they should freely distribute preprints and present at conferences (even if just presenting a poster) to those who are interested. Of course, that would require that their work really be as interesting and paradigm-busting as they think it is, which is where things tend to fall down.

      Don’t even get me started on the financial and political influences in science….

      As opposed to the pure and rarefied venues of the humanities, the media, the business world, government….

      • One must not forget that there are well documented cases where opposition from the establishment has delayed or hindered the development of ideas we now consider important.

        One cannot deny the Galileo had problems with peer reviews.

        Darwin might have published earlier if he had not been worried about the criticism his research would receive from the establishment – and his key work might never have seen the light of day if it was not for the support of friends and the fact that Wallace had independently come up with the same idea.

        Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was never accepted in his lifetime – because the geologist establishment (who didn’t have any better theories) could not accept that the ideas of a non-geologist might be right.

        Nullifidian commented on the “anonymous scientists” who had difficulty with peer-reviews, and I am quite happy to stand up to say that I have experienced the problems of doing research which questions the establishment position and know how the system works (unintentionally I am sure) to crush “incompatible” ideas.

        In 1967 I was working on the future plans within a small computer manufacturer, and gave my boss a note suggesting that it should be possible to build computer systems that were fundamentally human friendly and which could handle a wide class of dynamically open-ended information processing problems by working symbiotically with the human user. While I didn’t realise it at the time, what I was doing was proposing an alternative mathematical model of information processing to the universally accepted store program computer model. My vague idea was assessed by the two of the leading computer pioneers and I was rushed into research – until the company research division was closed down as the result of a merger. I then tried to carry on the research and it was clear that peer reviews and funding were a recurring problem which are best explained by an analogy.

        Let us assume that in 1850 I came up with the idea of a helicopter and needed funding – and the only experts in mechanical transport were at the railway station. So I get straight rejection such as “You must be mad – you couldn’t possibly go from London to Bristol by helicopter because the rotor blades are too long and would snap off when you passed through the Box tunnel.” But some people said they might support me if the finances were right asking me questions such as “I have a thousand troops at London Euston Railway Station and I want to take them to Manchester Piccadilly – how much cheaper would it be to send them by helicopter?” I found a complete absence of relevant rejection points such as “You have not convinced me that you could build an engine which is light enough and powerful enough to get your helicopter off the ground.”

        There can be nothing more depressing than repeatedly having your work rejected because of confirmation bias in the minds or the peer reviewers – who are unwilling to “waste time” questioning the foundations of their own views – and simple “reject”. After many years trying I decided to stop banging my head against a brick wall. The project was closed down in 1988 and two years later a paper that had been submitted before the decision to close appeared in a top peer review journal!

        Nearly 25 years later the question arose as to the future of a large pile of research reports, correspondence, computer listings, etc, related to the research, and I decided to look online before I decided whether to skip them or not. I quickly found that no-one else had gone in my direction – but suspect that many people my have tried and been crushed by the establishment at an early stage. However I discovered that the model I developed could provide a clue to modern brain research – where, despite enormous efforts in many different specialist field, there is no theory which provides a viable evolutionary pathway between the activity of individual neurons and human intelligence.

        I believed the model I developed could (with some more work) help bridge that gap and have already posted many of the old reportson a blog. There are also some brainstorming ideas and the blog is beginning to attract attention. A short time ago the penny dropped as to the best way to represent the model. As a result a post defining an “ideal brain” (compare with an “ideal gas” in physics) is being drafted and will show how such a brain could evolve to support something like natural language and human intelligence.

        Of course, as a committed scientist, I know that I could be wrong, and if people tear my “ideal gas” model to bits for good reasons I will always be happy to learn. However my experiences to date means that I am sure I will be ignored by people who KNOW without reading my blog that a 75 year old age pensioner whose only resource is access to the internet and some old reports MUST be wrong. Strange as it may seem I am almost more worried that the ideas attract enough attention to be newsworthy as that would disrupt my retirement – but as a scientist I feel I must find some way to expose my ideas to genuine critical review.

      • Mapo says:

        Martin, you will forgive me, but your assertions are so discomforting. I am a scientist (have been for a long time) and a teacher: the world in which the “paradigm shift theory” has been developed by Kuhn is very much different from today, for the simple reason that the people involved in any branch of any science and any research are just too many, and their results do constantly feed back to industry/money/power. There is no paradigm whatsoever which would ever hold for a split second against money and power. Scientific theories have been rearranged less and less in their core during the last century, and the real challenge has been moved on sub-elements of theories and minor aspects of them (generally). Your example about the cell pumps does not take into account what is the “educated” reply of people in the field: ever thought that the “establishment” might be right? Never thought that if a new road is shown everyone would jump ON it, instead of wasting time to negate it? Never thought that after 120 years of intense research, you should be able to explain also every single result already obtained in hundreds of thousands, if not million, of published experiments? For the good or the bad, the scientific community is often depicted as some sort of very homogeneous conservative movement: well, it is not. Not anymore, and there is plenty of social studies which you might want to read on the matter. Being conservative is not anymore a pre-requisite to be a scientist: get on with that. And if still in trouble, do research yourself or get to chat with people who MIGHT know what they are talking about. Everything else is just a very, deeply useless smearing attack towards the same forces driving everything forward, not last technology and our own comprehension of our world.

      • Nullifidian says:

        hertfordshirechris says:
        “One must not forget that there are well documented cases where opposition from the establishment has delayed or hindered the development of ideas we now consider important.

        “One cannot deny the Galileo had problems with peer reviews.”

        Actually, one can. It wasn’t Galileo’s peers in science that were able to have him sentenced to house arrest and to wear the yellow “cross of infamy”, but the Catholic Church. The Galileo affair is not an indictment of science, but a testament to the incompatibility of science and authoritarian systems of governance, whether political or religious.

        “Darwin might have published earlier if he had not been worried about the criticism his research would receive from the establishment – and his key work might never have seen the light of day if it was not for the support of friends and the fact that Wallace had independently come up with the same idea.”

        This is not evidence of peer review hindering a breakthrough idea because a) the breakthrough was published, and b) it wasn’t subject to peer review in the conventional sense. Darwin tested his ideas among his scientific correspondents, but fundamentally he published outside the peer review system, which didn’t exist in his day. And again, the dominant notion holding him back was again religious, not scientific. To the extent that any scientific considerations held him back from publishing, it was due to the fact that Darwin believed he didn’t have a right to publish until he had amassed as much evidence as he could and until he had made a name for himself in his chosen field. Therefore, he spent eight years studying and publishing his landmark work on the systematics of barnacles, as well as gathering data and doing experiments (testing the germination of seeds after immersion in seawater, pigeon crossings, etc.). This is not a failure of “peer review” because it’s what scientists are supposed to do.

        “Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was never accepted in his lifetime – because the geologist establishment (who didn’t have any better theories) could not accept that the ideas of a non-geologist might be right.”

        No, they didn’t accept Wegener’s theory of continental drift because Wegener was wrong. No scientist is obligated to accept a hypothesis that is wrong to explain an observation just because they don’t have any better explanation. The thing to do when faced with a scientific conundrum where all the proposed explanations are insufficient or false on their face is to await developments. And that’s what the geological community quite properly did. Wegener had pointed out several observations that suggested a past direct association of separated continents—not just that they fit together like puzzle pieces, but also details of biogeographic distribution—and proposed as an explanation that continents just plowed through water. This was obviously absurd and unsupported by any evidence (and no wonder, because it doesn’t happen this way), so it was dismissed. Again, this is not a failure of peer review but a success. Had Wegener been entirely dismissed, his name would have been forgotten, but instead many scientists of Wegener’s own generation and later remembered what he pointed out, even if they didn’t necessarily accept his explanation. Then when plate tectonics was developed in the 1960s based on a firm empirical footing, rather than Wegener’s unfounded speculations, he came to be seen as a man ahead of his time and popular history forgot that the explanation he proposed was stupid.

        All three of your historical examples predate the development of the scholarly peer review system in place today.

        Finally, I didn’t use the phrase “anonymous scientists” to invite people who thought that peer review had done them wrong to submit their tales of woe. Frankly, I don’t care. The point I was making there was to say that there are plenty of ways to get information out to the scientific world, and publication is actually the least efficient of these and arguably mostly irrelevant. Conferences, preprints, presentations before other university departments, etc. are where the scientific action is. However, all these means of getting around the peer review process require that your work actually be as interesting to your colleagues as you think it is.

        In your own case, you haven’t demonstrated that the peer review system has suppressed a scientifically worthy idea. You cite the absence of people “go[ing] in [your] direction” as evidence that these views have been “crushed by the establishment at an early stage”, but an equally potent hypothesis is that your ideas are unworkable and nobody wants to spend their time trying to make the unworkable work. While I can’t say without seeing your ideas in full, the notion that you can just switch from computation to talking about the brain without any apparent background in neuroscience is another indication that you’re a crank. So is the use of coined terms and irrelevant jargon. In what way is a brain similar to an “ideal gas”? An ideal gas is hypothetical state in which the molecules all randomly moving small, hard spheres that have perfectly elastic and frictionless collisions with no attractive or repulsive forces between them and where the intermolecular spaces are much larger than the molecules themselves. None of these things are true in practice, of course, but they’re close enough to the model in most cases that it makes no difference. Now, neurons are not small hard balls, they don’t move in random directions and collide elastically, the synapses are not vastly larger than the neurons, and there’s no way the concept of an ideal gas appears to work even as a metaphor. So I’m not convinced that the rejection of your ideas by an unfriendly peer review system is evidence that the “establishment” is wrong.

      • Replying to Nullifidian

        First let me thank you for your critical comments – as the enemy of good science is confirmation bias – and what is needed to explore controvercial ideas is open no-holds barred debate on the issues. I have now posted a discussion draft “From the Neuron to Human Intelligence: Part 1: The ‘Ideal Brain’ Model” (http://trapped-by-the-box.blogspot.co.uk/p/blog-page.html) and have added a section on nomenclature specifically because you raised the subject.

        Now responding to your specific comments let me start by reminding you that I said “despite enormous efforts in many different specialist field, there is no theory which provides a viable evolutionary pathway between the activity of individual neurons and human intelligence.”

        If you think this statement is wrong I would be very grateful for a reference to a paper which describes such a model. If you can’t provide evidence of such research why are you so hostile to the suggestion that someone thinks that they might have a possible answer?

        For instance you introduce a straw man argument relating to the analogy between my “ideal brain” model and an “ideal gas.” Of course I would be a crank if I thought neurons were little balls bouncing around in the brain – as you are suggesting. The whole point of the “ideal gas” model is to strip everything down to the bare essentials. You start with an infinite brain filled with identical neurons (cf. An infinite container filled with identical molecules). Interactions between neurons are not by collisions but by electrical connections which carry signals of variable strength. (In theory every neuron is connected to every other one – but in the vast majority of cases the strength of the interaction is zero.) In an ideal gas the three properties of interest at pressure, volume and temperature, while in the ideal brain we are interested at the ability to store patterns, recognise them, and use them to make decisions. Another similarity is that both models work pretty well in some cases – for instance the ideal brain model suggests one reason why humans are prone to confirmation bias – and when the models start to fail the models can be used to explain the differences.

        Your comment about switching between computation and talking abut the brain is interesting for two reasons.

        Any research model which attempts to link the neurons to human intelligence will involve many different disciplines in fields such as psychology, childhood learning, animal behaviour, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience, and in addition will undoubtedly involve modelling on a computer. I would argue that what is needed is the ability to stand back and be able to see the wood from the trees – and that have too much mental commitment in any one speciality could be a liability. You seem to be suggesting that neuroscientists are some kind of super-scientists who have a monopoly on holistic approaches to how the brain works.

        However the comment is interesting because it pin-points the problem I have had. My ideas became trapped between a rock and a hard place. I worked as an information scientist (in the librarian sense) before entering the computer field and was used to seeing how people handled complex information processing tasks. I then moved to computers and concluded that there were serious flaws in the design of stored program computers – suggesting a fundamentally different model that reflected how people handled information. I could not get adequate support from the computer establishment because computers were so successful that there couldn’t be any serious flaw in their design, and even if there were problems there was so much money to be made ploughing on regardless that any time spent on blue-sky-research into work that questioned the ideas of people like Turing was a waste of time.

        At the same time I was getting comments from other fields that that I could not be modelling how people think because the standard computer model was wrong and as I was a computer scientist I must also be wrong! I am sure your critical comment was based on a stereotyped view that tars all computer scientists with the same brush.

        Finally a quick note on the Galileo/Darwin debate – which is really superficial to the main issue. The human brain works in the same way hundreds of years ago as it does now, and there is no biological difference between the way scientists and religious people’s brain works. Establishments (whether scientific or religious) tend to work in the same way when presented with ideas which are “outside the box” – because all humans suffer to some extent from confirmation bias. In Galileo’s case the establishment was clearly religious – while Darwin went to a university which was founded to train church ministers in a country where religion played an important part of everyday life. I don’t see any reason to think that modern scientific establishments, who are concerned with who comes out top in the scientific rat race for resources, are totally objective when presented with outside the box research applications, etc.

        BTW – I based my Wegener comments on the Wikipedia entry – and from what you say I assume you think Wikipedia is misleading.

  13. Ambidexter says:

    Recently the check engine light came on in my car and I took it to the shop. The oxygen sensor was bad. I didn’t know my car had an oxygen sensor, let alone how to repair or replace it. Fortunately the mechanic did know how to fix the car (albeit unfortunately for my wallet).

    I’d be amazed if the journalist hadn’t had similar experiences. Nowadays we can’t maintain our cars or household appliances, we don’t have the expertise to do so. So how does the journalist think something much more complex than a car or microwave, something like the Earth’s climate or a country’s economy, can be maintained by amateurs?

  14. Craig says:

    Nice piece. It’s worth pointing out that peer revision in science provides a form of intellectual integrity at least, if not a moral one. Scientists love proving each other wrong,.

    Also, whatever happened to Professor Knut after opening up a discussion regarding a total and pragmatic approach to the effect of drugs in society? I can’t remember if politicians discussed the issue and reasoned or just booted him out and ignored the scientific analysis.

  15. It’s a little hard to churn through all this. Brendan O’Neill is, of course, a self-defined iconoclast who has opposed pretty much every democratic reform which has been proposed over the past three decades. Last year he was defending to keep the existing House of Lords precisely because it was a bulwark against this ghastly democracy business. And it’s also a matter of public record that Brendan O’Neill’s cult, the Revolutionary Communist Party, was instrumental in the establishment of Sense About Science.

    So to hear him now turn tail and argue for the opposite is a little hard to take seriously. At the same time, it is certainly a problem to get the roles of scientist and politician mixed up. We do see bad examples of evidence lead policy all the time (ie a think tank comes up with an idea, does a bit of research to back it up, and a minister adopts it wholesale), none of which tend to have the scientific rigour that genuine evidenced based policy requires.

    Personally, I’d rather live in a democratic country than a technocratic country. I happen to think that a democratic country would end up making better decisions, but even if it didn’t then it would be desirable for its own sake. But at the same time, I would want the decisions that country made to be based on evidence and to follow best practice wherever possible. Evidence should guide policy makers, but the objectives they work towards must always be in the political sphere.

    Somehow though, I very much doubt that that is what Brendan O’Neill believes in; assuming he believes in anything at all.

  16. dylanhearn says:

    “There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things.”

    Fascism would be to suppress the knowledge to become an expert. Idiocy would be not to recognise this.

  17. Diamond Geezer says:

    *mighty cabal.

  18. Paul Hayman says:

    To suggest that science is “a self-correcting, evidence based system of exploring the universe which attempts to unearth the least wrong laws and theories that can explain what exists or might exist whilst accepting that room must always be left for doubt and further enquiry” is naive in the extreme. It does not work like this and is very much like a religion. The case in point to illustrate this is the way Rupert Sheldrake is treated by the scientific community. A man literally called “a heretic” for presenting alternative scientific theories to the mainstream. John Maddox, the editor of Nature in 1981 famously said Sheldrake’s books should be burnt. These are religious utterances. And no matter how much data and experimental evidence Sheldrake gathers in support of his theories the scientific mainstream community won’t look at it and instead deny its existence.

    I have frequently challenged your friend Brian Cox on Twitter to debate with Sheldrake. He never answers the challenge. He doesn’t say no. He just doesn’t answer. And that is symbolic of the way mainstream science works. Like a religion it sees what it wants to see and ignores as heresy or nonsense ideas that do not fit with its fundamental tenets of faith.

    Also I will say to you what I have said to Brian numerous times on Twitter. Please read Rupert Sheldrake’s book, The Science Delusion. Then tell me science is not like a religion.

    • robinince says:

      it should be pointed out that if you read all of Maddox’s review he ends by saying that Sheldrake’s book should not be burnt.

      • Paul Hayman says:

        Under an article entitled ‘A Book For Burning’ Maddox said the following: He wrote “This infuriating tract… is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” I think he realised the enormity of what this implied for the supposed openness of science and tried to back peddle away from fully suggesting it should be burned though saying, “[Dr Sheldrake’s] book should not be burned (nor confined to closed shelves in libraries) but, rather, put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual aberrations.” I think from the tone of the article it’s pretty clear he did believe it should be burned though, and his view of mainstream science he openly religious in fervour. 12 years later in an interview broadcast on BBC television in 1994, Maddox stated: “Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy.”

    • Richard says:

      1. As observed I think originally by Dawkins, that debate would look good on Sheldrake’s CV, but not so good on Brian’s. Such debates are also an awful way to try to get to the truth, because it’s inevitably the person more skilled in rhetoric that ‘wins’ rather than the person with the best arguments. I suspect this is why you are ignored.
      2. You may want to read this review to see why scientists ignore Sheldrake’s ideas about science: http://philosophynow.org/issues/93/The_Science_Delusion_by_Rupert_Sheldrake
      The data he has collected on, for example, telepathy is seriously unreliable: http://barenormality.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/rupert-sheldrake-and-the-psychic-dog/

      • Martin Brown says:

        Valid points Richard BUT telepathy aside, there are so many areas he has highlighted which are worthy of research and would likely move scientific knowledge forward rapidly. Scientists don’t seem to want to touch those areas as it almost seems borderline religious in some way? Mechanical reductionism is rife and its damaging science badly. It upsets me to see it. I find myself resenting the scientific community as many are demonstrating the dogmatism they claim to be against.

      • Paul Hayman says:

        1. Then again it might be because people like Brian Cox don’t want to debate with people with alternative scientific ideological positions because it would question the immutability of their mainstream thinking. And please listen to some of Sheldrake’s debates before suggesting he is a rhetorician. He is a scientist with an alternative description best fitting evidence that the mainstream ignores.

        2. I cannot access the review you refer to as it requires subscription so can’t comment. The second link refers to animal experiments. More recently Sheldrake has experimented on the sense of being stared at using techniques that cannot be criticised as open to interpretation like the videos of animals in the way described in the critique (even if I agreed with this, which I don’t). He has amassed a mountain of evidence for the existence of telepathy using controlled telephone experiments. Mainstream science simply shuts its eyes and ignores it.

      • Richard says:

        1. Yes. It also might be that he’s extremely busy and doesn’t have the time to sift through requests from the very many cranks (not suggesting Sheldrake is a crank, incidentally [or you for that matter!], just that he’s wrong) who contact him with similar requests, and it’s difficult to tell the cranks from the genuine questioners. I guess we’ll never know. Also, I didn’t say Sheldrake was a rhetorician, I said that the better rhetorician would ‘win’ the debate. You don’t get to the truth through debates – it’s not what they’re designed for.

        2. Sorry, worked for me and I don’t have a subscription (though now curiously it doesn’t, how odd)… You can criticise any scientific result, especially one that is subject to experimenter bias and subjective experiences, as ‘open to interpretation’. It’s very difficult to control these studies properly. It seems to me that the best explanation of Sheldrake’s results is experimental error, especially when the field of parapsychology has systematically failed to find any consistently reproducible effects prior to this (I suggest this article as a good description of the problems in parapsychology research: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/NS2000.html ). Mainstream science didn’t shut its eyes to Sheldrake’s results: Richard Wiseman went and tested them and found them to be unreliable! Science has a duty to investigate anomalous results, and sometimes they lead to revolutions, but when one person has some (highly contested) results that all seem to support their own pet theory (morphic resonance) then scepticism is warranted.

      • Richard says:

        @Martin Brown: from what I understand of Sheldrake’s criticism, it seems it’s quite outdated these days. The emergence of ideas such as chaos, complexity and criticality, and more recently systems biology – all steps away from “mechanical reductionism” (though none contradicting it) – I think are addressing a lot of Sheldrake’s criticisms, without relying on magical thinking. But I don’t think you’ll hear him mention them…

    • Martin Brown says:

      I could not agree more. The science community in general needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. We would be decades further ahead if it wasn’t for the points you have made.

      • Hear Hear – I went to an unconventional school (Dartington Hall) and learnt that good science meant being objective – the important thing was to find out the facts – and not to prove that you were right. The key step was to step back from the problem and ask the right questions – rather than rush into the detail. All well and good – until your research takes you outside the establishment box – and you find you are ill-prepared to survive in the scientific rat race for funds to carry out the research.

  19. Vanda says:

    The irony is that the “science as a religion” idea comes almost exclusively from religious people. They clearly use this proposition as a criticism of science. Yet, the “insult” is to call it a religion. Religious person A insults person B with “you also adhere to a religion!”
    Is this an argument for “sure I hold really bad beliefs but so do you”? Or maybe a classic “I am rubber, you are glue” zinger?

  20. Hey; since you asked for me to reply on Twitter, here I am!

    As I said there, the appeal to the need for expertise might be more effective if there was a sense that you actually knew any of the relevant scholarship in the field which you’re discussing. Your definition of science, for example, is extremely contentious. Your claim that the world is more complex now than ever before is similarly so. So are your arguments about progress. People like Kuhn or Feyerabend, to name just people I’m somewhat familiar with, have a much more complicated take on how progress works and what that means for science. Shapin and Schaeffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump is a really interesting discussion of the political commitments/implications of early experimental science. This book I reviewed a bit back has some acid things to say about the way expertise functions in our culture.

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/wrong-why-experts-keep-failing-us-david-freedman-review/Content?oid=2075055

    I don’t think there’s a cabal of scientists controlling everything, and if folks on the panel were saying that, then that’s fairly silly. But economic expertise is in fact a major discourse/institution which has huge policy implications, and discussions of that aren’t really advanced, or even addressed, by pointing out that I can’t fix my cell phone.

    When people say that science is a religion, they mean that people’s investment in it is motivated by belief, rather than by some process of ratiocination. Your post actually buttresses that claim, since, as I say, you seem to believe in science as a worldview without actually having much expertise in that worldview, or in the arguments about it, or in the criticisms of it. I’m not an expert myself in this area by any means, either. I just know enough to know that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about — which, at least from your perspective, seems like it should give you pause.

    • Guy Chapman says:

      Kuhn and Feyerabend are great favourites with those who wish to assert that the lack of total knowledge about the universe somehow justifies believing things that are in complete contradiction with everything we do know. Homeopaths, for example, if they are well enough clued up on science to recognise the futility of trying to argue that water ha memory, may well cite Kuhn and Feyerabend and assert that another new paradigm is right round the corner. Climate change deniers love them too. So what if no professional scientist of any standing, and no scientific body of national or international standing, supports the denialists? There could be a new paradigm right around the corner!

      The views of Kuhn and Feyerabend are, as you must know, far from mainstream. And they fail to adequately address the fact that in many cases we do know enough to be pretty confident that scientific consensus is not going to change any time soon.

      Can you give an example of where a political or religious view has been right and the scientific consensus wrong?

      • Sure. The scientific view for 100s of years was that the sun went around the earth. We now believe (with good reason) that that’s false. Similarly, Newtonian mechanics was a scientific view; then we learned it was wrong (or shifted paradigms, depending on how you want to look at it.)

        You’ll probably say that that isn’t an example of a religious/political view defeating science. But the truth is scientific views are religious and/or political too. There’s not a neat separation, and never has been. Darwin’s theories have doctrinal implications. Boyle’s experiments with the air pump were (as Shapin and Shaffer show) absolutely about politics and theories of political power. Separating science and religion/politics is a political/ideological move in itself. It assumes the thing you’re attempting to prove.

        Scientific consensus could and does change regularly. Read that article about expertise I linked. Studies and consensus change all the time. Relativity really wasn’t that long ago, and that was a massive change in how we view the world. I certainly think that climate change is well-attested, and the best evidence we have now is that it’s real — but if 200 years from now it turns out that we didn’t quite know what we were talking about, I don’t think that would be a huge shock. That sort of thing happens with some frequency.

        Just because folks you don’t like cite Kuhn and Feyerabend, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or unimportant. Or at least, that mode of argument is ad hominem, not scientific. So if you’re actually committed to science, you might want to try something else.

        Kuhn and Feyerabend are not especially marginal in the field of history and philosophy of science, as far as I can tell. Lots of laypeople object to them on common sense grounds…but, you know, common sense objections by laypeople aren’t supposed to have much weight when you’re talking about science, right?

  21. The journalist so tactfully left nameless (secret revealed: it’s Brendan O’Neill) gets me in a rage every time I read his latest, yet at the same time it seems obvious to me that he says the things he says in order to enrage people.

  22. Barry Morgan says:

    “MPs might cherry pick data to justify the policies they wished to put into place” – shock, horror and other sounds of disbelief accompanied with suitable over the top facial expressions. Everyone with an agenda to push does the same, whether politician, despot, preacher, saint or scientist. Makes it the task of the one on the receiving end harder sorting the proverbial wheat from the chaff and sadly many are not capable of this so these agendas continue to roll out and become accepted, rejected (but still there) or tolerated until the next one raises its ugly head. Basically, you can’t trust no one but yourself these days !

  23. sharondymond says:

    Great blog, Robin. I’m adding you to my blog list.

  24. I think some of the problem lies in people being blind to the fact that they are not experts in a particular subject. We have kids dying of whooping cough because parents think they are smarter than scientists, doctors, the CDC, etc. So one on hand we have people confounded as to why expert opinion should matter and on the other hand we have non-experts thinking they are indeed experts. Lose, lose situation. You post had me cracking up (and also banging my head against the desk.).

  25. Brad says:

    People take for granted how this notion called “science” is responsible for every single modern convenience. Take medicine for example, a couple of hundred years ago if you had a stroke no would have any idea what was wrong or how to help you. Of course no one would admit that, they’d just make up an explanation like “That’s what happens when you look a menstruating woman in the eye”, and you’d be even worse off if they did try to help you. They’d probably drill a hole in your skull and try to suck the clot out with their mouths.

  26. I was lucky enough to be in the room during this debate. Although I was quite far back and couldn’t really see the speakers, I could feel the heat radiating from Robin’s head as he got more and more angry.
    Best debate for a long time!

  27. ittymac says:

    “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” Ben Franklin …In my opinion, the most daunting issue we face is misinformation, and its tendency to spread through narrow, set minds like a plague.

  28. santa says:

    I have some different ideas about heart surgery and would like to find somebody willing to let me try them out…

  29. One thing that galled me (among many to choose from) watching that debate was that the journalist tried to have it both ways. On the one hand expertise was, he claimed, unfair; the dreadful experts elbowing out the common man! Then not two sentences later he was ridiculing researchers from ‘second rate universities’. Really it was all a confused muddle of non-thought.

    If rationalists and scientists had the reach and influence he claimed, you wouldn’t have been having the debate in a hotel in Manchester, you’d’ve been having it in Westminster.

  30. The only purpose, for most people, of winning an argument is an ego boost. Obviously if you go out and research something you must badly need the ego boost. Politicians are at least partly to blame they have changed debate from a means of getting at the truth to a means of humiliating the opposition by any means. People no longer see the difference between Playing the ball and playing the man. Someone, who on receiving new information, changes there opinion is though to be showing a lack of integrity.
    One of the reasons China fell behind was the obsession with not loosing face, which basically means never admitting your wrong, we are off down the same path.

    • There is also the Dunning-Kruger effect. But I think your take accounts for most of it. If there are only two pieces left on the chess board, and you know you’ve lost the game, what are you do to? You can admit defeat, or you can knock the board over, and subvert the game. The latter is a way to stay in the game. It’s also a way to ensure that no progress is ever made.

  31. Alternative medicine is the new religion. Seriously. Talk to a homeopath, substitute “god” for “healing” and see if you can spot the difference.

  32. David says:

    Hi Robin. I was there and saw and heard your exchange. Your protagonist’s point (I think) was that we needed leaders to lead through their own morals rather than delegating every decision to science.
    However it did seem to get personal especially when you asked him to clarify who the best people would be to go to – a layman in power with a hunch or a knowledgeable expert? I thought his argument went a bit straw man at this point.

    You were passionate, vociferous and coherent, Robin, you backed up your points with facts and evidence. In the face of it iI don’t blame you for your frustration.

  33. Ben says:

    “Though democracy lovers may shiver at the idea, the penalty for living in the civilisation we currently walk through is that we must sometimes accept our ignorance and defer to others. ”

    What changed? When did the world become too dangerous for democracy?

    • Nothing changed. I don’t think those ideas are incompatible with democracy. The greatest leaders weren’t experts in everything. They were, however, smart enough to surround themselves with people who knew what they were talking about,

      Of course, honesty and bravery are also required of all these people. And that’s where it tends to fall apart.

      It all looks good on paper. It just takes human imagination to screw it up.

      • Ben says:

        Oh, But Robin seemed quite clear that it was the ‘civilisation we currently walk through’ that seemed incompatible with democracy. Though, of course, the evidence suggests that it is, on the contrary, the safest, most secure era in human history.

    • Radio says:

      I took this to mean that we can no longer settle with defining the truth by majority vote. The society that pays attention to science’s best guesses at reality will have an advantage over the society that tries to create its world by decree. Democracies that think their legislative powers extend to the laws of nature are likely not to exist very long, and they could take all of us with them. I just made myself depressed. Please forget I said anything.

  34. Steffan John says:

    Brendan O’Neill clearly was talking about political matters, not technological matters.

    I know scientists generally have contempt for the history and philosophy of science, but there’s a long history of people and governments trying to run society ‘scientifically’. If you cared enough to study the history, you’d know that it is not an altogether glorious one.

    • robinince says:

      that is not what the argument was about. also, metaphors and analogies were used in the debate, it seems some have thought everything was meant literally.

  35. Garry Abbott says:

    Randomly, my artist friends did an animated video of Kendo Nagasaki featuring (and funded by) the man himself (he appears at the end both as himself and, I jest not, an animated oil painting) I did the music… It is here. ‘Genesis in Portrait’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyFeRgKTfKc&list=UUTcoWS9PJmE-23tSYGELViA&index=76

  36. Kiru says:

    I suspect what Mr. O’Neill meant to say, rather than “herp derp a bloo bloo bloo strawman strawman”, was that the road to expertise is long, difficult, expensive, and systematically unwelcoming to women and minorities. Because our scientists are produced via a system that filters out the poor, the timid, and the systematically disenfranchised, the experts and the science we create are only a fraction of what we are capable of creating. And, while many of Mr. O’Neill’s points seem to have been reasoned out by someone with a suppurating head wound, the point that an elite group is generally quite poor at creating policies for a diverse society is surely relatable to anyone who objects to all their elected leaders being products of the same three public schools.

    I’d have liked to see a panel called “Is Science the New Religion?” deal more with how a veneer of scientific expertise is used to grant authority to moral claims, just like how religion used to be.

    • ewanmacdonald says:

      Excellent post. There actually is a valid criticism to be made of how scientific communities are composed, and what this means for public policy in a technocratic society… but O’Neill didn’t make that critique.

  37. As a career scientist who advises government, I can inform you that our job is to obtain the evidence and supply it to the government of the day. They can use that evidence to help weigh their opinion, but science and evidence generally are not all that is used to make decisions. That is why you elect MPs in a democracy and we don’t live in a scientific oligarchy.

  38. I agree with your definition of science but at the end you are talking about technology as if science and technology were one and the same thing. Of course the two are closely linked but what the average person sees is not “pure” science but rather technology – and they only see that technology because someone is making money out of it!

    There are many problems. If an early version of a technology is commercially acceptable better versions can be blocked because people have adjusted to the original technology (which may have become an international standard) and there are more people wanting the old technology (even if science has shown it to be inferior) than would benefit in the short term if the improved technology were introduced.

    A good example is the QWERTY keyboard which was used on early typewriters, then on teleprinters, which were used as early input devices for computers … Much excellent research has been done on better keyboard, using the latest scientific advances – but QWERTY is still with us, although its is being replaced in some areas by completely different forms of information input.

    The problem of competing technologies is illustrated by the triumph of VHS over BetaMax (which was said to be technically better) because the real battle was who would get the biggest market share – as people would buy the system with the biggest collection of recordings.

    This raises a potential trap – if a new technology comes along and is extremely successful because there was no competition its total domination of the market would make it almost impossible to develop and market improved versions – and as a result it could be difficult to fund blue sky scientific research which questions the foundations of the technology.

    Let me suggest where this may have already happened. The stored program computer emerged in the 1940s and was soon seen was a money spinner – with many companies rushing to get a foothold in the market. The rat race to capitalise on the invention has resulted in systems which dominate everyday life in much of the world, where the technology is taught in schools and everyone knows something about how computers work – if only in the form of an inferiority complex because “they are too difficult for me”.

    In fact it is considered as an unavoidable truth that computers are black boxes where the internal workings are incomprehensible to the computer user. But the stored program computer is incomprehensible because computers were originally designed to process mathematical algorithms carrying out tasks which the average person would also find incomprehensible. The problems computers were designed to solve are about as far from the problems faced by early hunter-gathers as it is possible to imagine.

    There must be an alternative. It is well know that nature has produced information processing systems (called brains) which start by knowing nothing (at birth) and can boot-strap themselves up to tackle a wide range of messy real world tasks. In the case of humans their brains can exchange information and people can work together symbiotically.

    So which scientists in the 1940s was saying that blue sky research into whether a “human friendly computer” that worked like a brain would be possible?. … or in the 1950s? … or in the 1960s? … …

    If you look through the literature virtually everyone who ever though about the problem was taking the stored program computer for granted. You will search the old literature in vain – and when people started to worry about the human user interface it was about writing programs to hide the inner black box from the human user. No-one was going right back to first principles to see if there was an avoidable weakness in the use of the stored program computer. And – because they were thinking of analogies with the stored program computer – it was taken for granted that the brains “computer” must be so clever it was very difficult to understand because it was “obviously” difficult to program. In effect the very successful technology was beginning to influence the way that scientists were thinking about research into how the brain works.

    In fact in 1968, backed by the team which built the Leo Computer (the world’s first commercial computer), work started on early studies with the purpose of designing a fundamentally human friendly “white box” information processor. I was the project leader and the project ended up under the name CODIL. The problem we faced (which has got worse over the years) is that even if it had been successful (and results with software prototypes were very promising) it would have to battle with the established stored program computer market. Look at the investment in hardware, applications, data bases, trained staff, public understanding, etc. etc. of conventional systems and the inertia against possible change is probably valued in trillions of dollars.

    To conclude I suggest that, because the computer revolution was technology led, key blue sky research was never done – and anyone proposing such blue sky research now is more likely to be greeted with hostility rather than adequate research funding.

      • [I don't know why your reply to me is not showing???]

        Perhaps it was not clear that part of my comment was related to matters raised in a number of different earlier posts – and which has come up again in later posts – for instance Martin starts by saying “there are way too many scientists in the mainstream who wouldn’t even look at lots of good research if it doesn’t fit, or is too far outside their current paradigm. …”

        It is obvious that the world is so complex that we depend on experts that I didn’t feel it necessary to repeat the point. I recently dropped a digital camera and it stopped working and I was happy to send it away to an expert (as it happened under guarantee) and would not dream of trying to repair it myself. Such matters occur on a regular basis and, whether we like it or not, we are all totally dependant on experts.

        The point I clearly failed to make is that one must not confuse the ideals of science with what experts (both scientists and technologists) actually do. When you lift the covers experts have all the motivations and limitations of other human beings and both the service we get on a day to day level, and the technology we get at a more general level, is driven by the relevant expert’s need to make a living.

        For instance your car starts to make an unusual noise and you take it to the garage, and it turns out to be a major engine repair job. Can you be certain that you get the best expert advice – or whether the garage is more interested in the profit they make in selling you a new car at ten times the cost of fitting a replacement engine? In the light or recent event do you have 100% confidence in investment bankers whose advise to you in the past meant that they have had large incomes while much of your capital has leaked away.

        I first became aware to the limitations of expert scientists when doing a Ph.D. in chemistry. It soon became clear from the published literature that many of the papers fell into one of two categories. The papers on theoretical chemistry (which appeared in the more theoretical journals and which were presumably peer reviewed by the theoretical chemists) often contained highly selective references to papers on experimental chemistry which the authors did not properly understand. If you looked at the journals that concentrated on experimental chemistry the reverse situation applied. That was over 50 years ago and since then expertise has become even narrower so there is more room for mistakes (or misleading claims) to be made in the gaps between specialities, and the kinds of technology available for us to use depends as much on the the capitalist system and sales pressures as on science.

        This increased specialisation lead to problems. A few years ago I had to prepare for an inquest where the deceased had been “wrongfully arrested”, become suicidal, and died in hospital – and where there was no apparent reason to take legal action as everyone appeared to have acted honestly.. At an inquest some years earlier we had asked a solicitor to “be our friend” at the inquest so he could ask questions which we might have difficulty will for emotional reasons. This time things were different as I couldn’t use a solicitor to ask the questions because now all solicitors were supposed to be experts in a particular field and might be legally liable if they spoke outside their field. I was firmly told we would need someone (who didn’t exist locally) who was an expert in both wrongful arrest AND mental health treatments. In fact the nearest mental health qualified solicitor listened to what we wanted and then explained that as he would be acting for the hospital he couldn’t take our case. Another solicitor 20 miles away was very helpful in the initial discussion but, because he was the coroner in an adjacent area, he felt he could not appear in in a brother coroner’s court! In fact I suspect that most of the firms of solicitors who had the expertise to be allowed to help in both fields had conflicts of interest!

        My case is that we are totally dependant on experts for many things, but there are significant weaknesses, and as the number of different experts we rely on increase there are more and more cracks where potentially thing can go wrong. The problem is that for everyone who discovers a genuine crack there are large numbers of people who imagine that the are cracks that aren’t there. Experts get so use to automatically rejecting the later that the former regularly get overlooked.

  39. Liam Mullone says:

    Brendan O’Neill styles himself a libertarian; he is really more of an arch contrarian in the Burchillian model. I am interested to know if he really used the word ‘fascist’. The repudiation of knowledge is in fact one of the central tenets of fascism, which is in not an ideology but the brutal application of pragmatism attached to a sense of national or racial destiny. mussolini, Hitler and Salazar were all utterly contemptuous of any knowledge tangential to their cause. O’Neill’s thing is to expand the Nietszchean volk-mission to the entire human race in ranting essays about how the Brazilians have every right to bulldoze their rainforest and the Chinese to fill the sky with sulphur; he embraces every questionable act of mankind as part of our quest to become the superman, and occupy every inch of our lebensraum. And anyone who disagrees is a neo-imperialist or, by strong implication, a racist. In short, I generally find that anyone wielding the word ‘fascist’ is themselves some species of hyper-pragmatist not far from fascism’s borders, and O’Neill would be a case in point. Having said that, I find his column in the Big Issue quite entertaining.

    • robinince says:

      oh no, he didn’t say fascism, it is merely the title I quickly typed while on the train.

      • Ben says:

        Ah. So you have had your nose put out of joint by someone *daring* to challenge your view in debate, and have reinvented his argument in childish terms to retell the story in a way that flatters you.

  40. Excellent and necessary rant.
    “Is knitting the new psoriasis?” rather neatly sums it up. It needs pointing out occasionally that a few words strung together in the form of question doesn’t automatically render it a valid question. “Is science the new religion?” is a pretty basic category error.
    Science (the process, that is) is the antithesis of a religion – except to someone (like your journalist) who probably doesn’t know what either science or religion are. Or indeed knitting and psoriasis.

  41. tlitb1 says:

    Brendan O’Neill put up an “edited version” of his speech on his blog here:

    http://brendanoneill.co.uk/

    If this is the same as presented at QEDcon then the points O’Neill make strike me as rather general and light on specifics but interesting enough as a jumping off point for debate. Judging from the twitter feed it doesn’t seem to have unfolded that way. One person made mention of O’Neil’s head being handed back to him :)

    I guess he is provocative but I have some sympathies with O’Neil’s stance especially about the status of “expertise” in policy. For instance the question of the domain and boundaries of the any expert opinion seem quickly to get muddied and lost once it is identified as originating from someone with the status of scientist and some measure of critical thinking seems to quickly get lost in starry eyed admiration.

    Look forward to seeing the video to see exactly how the debate went exactly. As Mr Ince admits he isn’t giving us much more insight here really.

  42. Martin says:

    Hi Robin,

    My comment is still awaiting moderation? Posted at 2.35pm. Will you not allow it for discussion?

  43. Sam Corcoran says:

    Experts should be listened to, but listened to critically. Even if you are not an expert in their field you can still check that an expert’s arguments is logical. You may even be able to check that they have evidence to back up their theories. (Dr) Andrew Wakefield was an expert on MMR and was listened to uncritically by some in the press – causing huse damage.

  44. You showed great restraint in what quickly degenerated into playground name calling versus reasoned debate. Had it gone further, rest assured I would have held your coat. x

  45. Peter Beattie says:

    Quick point of protocol: do you have a complete source for the “knowledge is a vaccine” quote? Google doesn’t seem to know it.

  46. “Is science the new religion?” is the sort of question you only ask if you’re looking for a pointless debate. A thousand people could find a thousand (qualified) ways to argue its quasi-truth. Hell, at one point religion infused every facet of life, so you could coherently assert that every new thing since took on some of religion’s role. In other words everything that is not religion, is the new religion. Such arguments however won’t change the rather obvious fact that science and religion are two quite different things.

    And my one is best.

  47. Deb Swinney says:

    I should start by saying that I’m pro-science, and pro evidence-based decision making. Having said that, I’ve got two concerns – or maybe caveats – about your post.

    The first us that “science” to many people is poorly-defined. I have a fair amount of faith in the results if a scientific study, but as a layperson I will never get to see the results of a study directly. I will probably see the same results quoted by a government, a campaigning group and a multinational. Which should I trust? Should I trust Mansanto when they tell me to buy GM food, even though they have stated that making sure that it’s safe is the FDA’s job not theirs? Or should I trust the group campaigning against GM? Which is anti-science, the group saying we don’t know enough or the company that says it’s not their job to know if what they sell is safe? Or if a doctor and researcher says that MMR is not safe, and the government says that it is, who is basing their argument on science? What about if the government says there’s no risk of BSE from burgers? For people with busy lives and no science background, it may be impossible to tell until after the fact.

    The second concern is that your anger started with the claim that science is a new religion. But – forgive me for summarizing – your response essentially summarizes as “no, science is fact-based, have faith”. Rather than exhorting people to have faith in claims made by “science” (which from my first point may or may not be made by genuine experts), should we not be educating people HOW to evaluate such claims? If we ask people to trust “science”, how do they distinguish science from pseudo-science: New Scientist from The Independent from homeopathy from an ad for an anti-aging cream?

    I feel like we need less public trust in experts, and more awareness of the distinguishing features of good science, like publication, peer review and results replicated by independent researchers. If people knew to ask those questions, it might help improve the public debate.

    • robinince says:

      you have presumed some things here that are wrong. The reason I laughed at the title of the debate is that I just thought it was silly. The idea that I want people just to have faith in science can only mean you didn’t read my post. also my post is not just about science. you will see the word “science” is not used after paragraph 3. “should we not be educating people” – read the post, that’s what I say. Equally at the panel what I said was that we needed to arm people with critical thinking.

      • robinince says:

        we are currently faced with a world where we are punch drunk with information. we need to work out a way of attempting to make the best decisions. If we want to have an opinion on a subject, we need to inform ourselves about it, we also need to attempt to find the best sources of information. I do not want to sit back and just let others tell me what is right, but I also accept that if I have not put the effort in or had the time to start comprehending an idea, I may have to let others do it. Due to the frailty of being self-conscious humans, there are many possible pitfalls in all systems – whether in the world of science, politics, history, pretty much every goddam thing

  48. robinince says:

    http://williamcalvin.com/bk8/bk8ch3.htm actual quotation starts “knowledge can be like a vaccine…” , this is one source

  49. Richard says:

    My favourite bit was when he said you were using the same argument as those who tried to deny women and black people the vote. You elitist bastard.

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  51. Bil Irving says:

    Isn’t the problem that there is rarely a single “yes” or “no” answer to things.

    “Should we build a school in this place, or that place?”
    “Does deforestation help or hinder the economy?”
    “Is there a God?”
    “Is Hinduism correct or Judaism correct?”

    Hence ideology always comes into it. And science and religion are two entirely different topics. Science cannot disprove the existence of God any more than prove it. It can prove that an apple is not an orange, but that’s as far as it goes.

  52. 19andnerdy says:

    Reblogged this on 19andnerdy and commented:
    A beautifully put defence of science and reason from comedian Robin Ince.

    In the words of Bertrand Russell: “The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgement.”

    There are many, many times when it’s not only acceptable to admit that someone else is more informed than you, but entirely advisable.

  53. Frank Bath says:

    “Is science the new religion?” What a stupid question. Whoever dreamed that one up should get the boot. They either haven’t got a brain or they deliberately set about muddying clear thinking.

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  57. Jonathan Hartley says:

    There really are times when “you’re a fucking idiot” is the only reasonable response to someone who is so stupidly wrong that any thing else would suggest that they have something of value to contribute to the debate.

  58. Brilliant and illuminating of many of the quandaries I have faced many times. I wish I’d been there to see the event but hopefully there will be a recording released at some point.

  59. Coincidentally I watched the ’95 film of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron at the weekend. Covers similar ground. Worth a watch, you can find it on YouTube I think.

  60. Gonzo says:

    Unfortunately, this is the exasperated response that everyone has when their hard-headed opinions are met with facts that undermine them. And more unfortunately, everyone is everyone, not just a few neanderthals on one side of a conference panel, or one “regressive” political party. All too often we see politicians demand experts be heard in their favor, then dismiss experts that oppose their agenda.

    The sentiment isn’t entirely wrong, though. Climate change, and before it, evolution, have been major issues of science vs public opinion. Too often, those on the side of science take the heavy-handed, ignorant approach – “You have to accept it, because expert X said so”. Or worse, the infamous “scientific discussion is closed” on climate change that openly flies in the face of what science truly is, and instead makes it sound like the stories of closed-minded and arrogant academia keeping a lid on unorthodox truths. Given the choice, we should choose science and expertise over our gut instinct, but not through blind trust of those who call themselves experts. Certainly, the experts of Galileo’s day were proved wrong when their consensus was used to “close the discussion” by the then-governing church, so it should be no surprise that those who grew up hearing the heroic Galileo facing down the stodgy old Pope (though, more accurately, his subordinates with an agenda), would see parallels here.

    Certainly, what we are seeing now is not an issue of power hungry experts, but rather, a culture that demands action and forgets that other human factors are involved. The expert needs to remember that their role is to inform those who decide, not to simply decide, and to portray their efforts in that light. Instead, they have piled their hopes upon one party and tried to use their influence to get that party in power, showing ignorance of the political environment. Instead of working with Gore, had they approached candidates on both sides with initiatives that fit their politics, progress would have been made. Regulations from the Left, “job creating” initiatives from the Right, and bipartisan support of an acknowledged carbon pollution issue could have won the day.

    It is important to point out the problems on both sides, but expertise inherently means you are the one responsible for conveying information in a manner that is understood. Making it confrontational always closes minds. Even if those closed minds seem like “fucking idiots”, the population of idiots is never as high as the population of the ignorant who only have your behavior to go off of when deciding if your expertise is truth, or mere bluster.

  61. wharton147 says:

    Although I completely support your position on the idiotic assertion that science is ‘just another religion’ it does need to be understood that every generation has been overwhelmed by the complexity, not just of technology but of the universe. That’s why we defer to hegemony of scholarship. Previous generations chose to defer to religion because it provided enough of an explanation in the circumstances; I choose, like you, to defer to science because I’m convinced by scientific method and peer review. However, and you point this out yourself, the complexities of modern science are so deep that it would be just as easy for (say) Brian Cox to construct an elaborate lie as it has been for the religions of the world to do so. In that sense, we all choose our religions. This phone could be operated by magic as easily as it could by technology for all I know. Philosophically, there are real problems with the notion of truth – we only have to compare the conclusions of Newtonian physics with those of Quantum mechanics to see how our limited grasp of science is probably still simplifying our understanding of the world.

    • robinince says:

      the first 3 paragraphs are about the debate, from then on the term science is never used because it becomes about complexity and the fact that we need to put effort in to comprehend, an opinion is not enough. As for Newtonian physics, well Newton still works up to a very useful point, the world of Newtonian physics was not destroyed by quantum mechanics. Newton’s work does not become a lie or myth. Whether fairy dust or fact, we look for what is most effective in curing, constructing etc. If your phone is magic, then fine, but we seek magic that works, medicine that works etc. When it comes to clean water, historians will not be able to look back and say, “they thought their water was cleaner than the mid 19th century, but actually everyone who thought they were alive in London in the 21st century was actually dead from cholera”. we may find better ways of ensuring water is clean etc etc

    • robinince says:

      so the post is really about using evidence effectively, working out the best ways of collecting data, attempting to ensure we know as much as possible that as little tainted by politics, ego etc, when making decisions.

      • wharton147 says:

        Absolutely – the phone point was a bit crude, I agree. However, the point I wanted to make is that for any lay person, the best available evidence will be pretty incomplete and that most of us in the end have to succumb to authority to a greater or lesser extent.

        Someone can tell me a convincing story about how my phone works, but I will still need to take a great deal of what they say on trust. Only idiots believe emptily, without applying their intelligence to the available evidence – but the evidence for complex scientific explanations of the world is often contained in a mathematical or conceptual context, the comprehension of which has required massive amounts of study on the part of those presenting it, and they have to dumb it down (tell necessary untruths) to communicate with an audience of the uninitiated.

        So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m nervous of the power that lies in any kind of arcane knowledge – but at least with scientific arcana there’s evidence and debate that follows a pattern I can choose (with due caution) to respect. Can this be expanded to other areas of experience – especially to the sort of political and economic arguments that too often turn on points of authority? Absolutely.

        Does this mean I’m basically agreeing with you. I think it does – only
        (A) everybody can be wrong.
        (B) evidence can be misleading.
        (C) I do think it’s OK to begin our thinking sometimes with a point of trust in someone whose ability to make an informed judgement has some precedent – just as long as that’s not where we stop our thinking.

  62. thefairishgodmother says:

    I was there. He *was* a fucking idiot and now I feel bad for not coming up to you and unironically thank you for your sangfroid.

  63. Dave Roche says:

    While all you have said I can agree with, I think the issue is more about money and notoriety. The medical world is no stranger these influences and science is being affected more than even. A senior scientist and colleague once sad to me ” if a research team get PAID to find something, they will”. The stamp collecting, fuzzy side of science is a great place to get paid for being an expert. So few researches in fundamental sciences get good money or notoriety, not because its less important but because you don’t always get the answers you want.

    When people believe in anything or any one, its an unreasonable commitment. It’s unreasonable to believe scientists but not unreasonable to trust them. However, you can’t trust anyone that is paid for a particular answer.

  64. Daniel says:

    Complete deference to experts is not necessary. Anyone making scientific claims can be subject to Scientific Pokémon. In Scientific Pokémon, people making scientific claims are set against adversaries. Anyone who makes a blatantly false statement will be very quickly pounced upon by their peers. Dishonest people know that very well so they tend to employ handwaving and unnecessary vague language. Scientists are especially good at detecting handwaving but it’s something even a dog can detect: You don’t have to understand what someone is saying to determine they are lying or being disingenuous (expressing a statement which may be true or false but which incorporates a lie about what they know or believe). Even when you cannot test a claim directly or have competent adversaries to test the claim, you can grant it provisional assent if the claim is specific enough to be easily proven false if were indeed false.

    • Dave Roche says:

      If you would like some examples there are many around to choose from. Research funding is often approved by peer reviewer and taken very seriously by government and media. Many research projects have “fundamental science” floors. These don’t get noticed because the peers are also on a money train or just not qualified.
      Many of these people use automated equipment to gather data without understand the chemistry or physics behind those instruments. Its not good thrusting these people or their results. I know this because, this was the field I worked in during the 80s and 90s, when most modern instruments were being developed.
      I respect your confidence in the system but it deserves a cynical audience or we would be denying one of its basic principles.
      Cheers.

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  66. Jake says:

    Isaac Asimov once stated, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    I’d add that it does seem to be getting worse as time goes and technology progresses. The Dunning-Kruger effect is most definitely a serious problem in this country…

    • Dave Roche says:

      Ignorance and arrogance go hand in hand but who is to say who is ignorant and who isn’t! The education systems (different countries) don’t do this too well.
      I agree with you, but remember Eisenstein was a lousy speller.
      Cheers.

  67. Science can’t tell us what we should do, in terms of public policy. But it’s pretty good at telling us when we’re doing something wrong. Governments tell people to eat less animal fat, people oblige, they get fatter, diabetes goes through the roof, whoops, science can tell us why that was a mistake. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23407305
    And science, of course, has been largely ignored, and the experts (the ones who were given the megaphone in the first place for some reason) are cherrypicking themselves into an ever-shrinking corner, because no-one wants to admit making mistakes or unleashing unintended consequences.

    • Cam Berry says:

      Excellent points well made, especially the final one.. “no one wants to admit making mistakes or unleashing unintended consequences”

      What of a proposition that individual members of society also do not want to take responsibility for their own personal choices either? Do we defer to authority sub-consciously and unquestioningly in order to avoid the fear of blame? Both the blame of others and of blaming ourselves? Have we subconsciously allowed the culture of compensation to ironically reduce our levels of scrutiny and evaluation usually applied before we trust, to become virtually redundant in many situations?

      If everyone took full responsibility for what they wrote, would we need censureship? Would these blog replies need approval before publication if everyone thought about what they posted and secondly, if everyone took responsibility for what they perceived or understood that post was saying? There are two sides to every conversation, not only 2 people, but 1) what we choose to say and 2) how they choose to hear what we say.

      Our Western societies pride themselves on freedom, but I ask, are we really free? I’d go further and ask, are we even awake? And if not, who do we have to blame?

  68. Cam Berry says:

    In my opinion people are only too happy to ‘trust’ others (particularly authority) and allow others to have control these days, which I find curious.

    Perhaps it is to do with the culture of compensation? If someone fails us we can more often than not, automatically claim financial recompense. Does this facility ironically cause us to trust without question and therefore abdicate responsibility for ourselves, when perhaps before we might have thought longer and harder about our choices?

    The passage from this article that jumped out at me was this..

    “We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to”

    The words IF WE ARE NOT PREPARED TO PUT IN THE TIME AND EFFORT TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING is another clue.

    Even in medical matters, it seems to me, people will happily walk into the doctors, unaware of how their bodies work, blindly take a prescription home and consume the drug with no research whatsoever. How much do we question authorities like doctors? How often do we consider that some drugs are prescribed more than others for financial reasons? How many people actually research their bodies? Is it people’s blind trust that sometimes makes them ignorant? Never in our history have we had SUCH a wealth of information at our fingertips and people still choose ignorance. But then, is it in authorities’ interests to have a questioning society and is ignorance subconsciously encouraged?

    How often do we truly question.. ‘Do I really need medication? Or will my body heal itself it?’ (and maybe faster if I learn how it works and facilitate the process myself?)

    I wonder if we trust FAR too much? Most people don’t question what’s really in their food, their medicine, what’s being taught to their children, why and by who? All the time we appear to defer more and more to others, hardly noticing that we are doing this without question or awareness and that is the issue. I’m all for trust, but let that trust be conscious and decided, once we have all the information.

    On one hand this societally encouraged blind trust might feel easier, cosy even, but if that’s the path we choose, do we really have the right to be quite so outraged when we find horsemeat in our food and serious side effects in our drugs, ie psychotic behaviour from anti-depressants and thalidomide babies? Trust AND ignorance are both choices, unconscious choices perhaps, but still choices.

    I’m not saying ‘don’t trust’, I’m saying be informed, think everything through and make conscious and aware decisions before you blindly eat/medicate/follow advice without thinking.

    If we take proper responsibility for our own lives and teach our children to question and be aware, we don’t need gods, compensation or regret, because we’re awake and aware of who we are trusting and why.

  69. Pete UK says:

    People may be fascinated by the advances In science, in awe perhaps, but worshipping at the non-existing altar of science is a fanciful notion captured in a journalistic sound bite.

  70. Cam Berry says:

    And in addendum to my previously submitted reply to your blog entry “Is science the new religion?”, my answer is yes, yes and yes. Please write more on this subject. Hanging out in Atheist facebook pages might provide some interesting material!

  71. Thälmann Pradeep Pereira says:

    One expert – no.
    A committee of experts would bring back democracy and avoid fascism.

  72. Robin, for what little solace it might offer, given that this hour is clearly haunting you (and quite justifiably so, I believe), I hope you realise that there are a great many people (not just those who have commented here, who are of course a preselected and vocal minority) who will both understand the issue which is bothering you, and share or sympathise with your frustration. I suspect if I’d been in your shoes, I would have been considerably less articulate, and the comment you regret would have been but one of many. I’m glad it was you, not just because I’d have made a fool of myself, but also because I believe you’re one of the people most likely to be able to penetrate this defensive ignorance, and get your point across to someone like this. If you couldn’t, it must have been virtually impossible… the failure is not yours, but belongs to the ignoramus to whom you spoke, even if they lack the wit to realise it.

  73. paul evans says:

    Is science the new religion? is not an idiotic question. For one thing it can be regarded as a query about the role of modern science and the plethora of theories laid before the ordinary man in umpteen books and tv programmes on the nature and origin of the universe; each seemingly trying to outdo the others with outlandish explanations which have more to do with wild imagination than scientific evidence. What are we lay people to make of them? Are they mere entertainment or are we supposed to believe they might be true? We shouldn’t confuse practical science and its application in engineering and medicine, for example, with the fanciful theories dreamt up under its banner. In some ways science and religion are two sides of the same coin. You pays your money and you makes your choice

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  75. Pingback: Virtual reality is not real. Or is it? - AreesPortal

  76. Deb Evans says:

    Really enjoyed your show tonight Mr Ince. Thanks.

  77. Pingback: Modernity can be hard work: On Mansplaining | through the looking glass

  78. Ian Woollard says:

    Perhaps this is more to do with stakeholders versus expertise.

    Even though Robin Ince is not (for example) an expert in driving, you’re certainly a stakeholder in driving, in that you have the right not to be (for example) mowed down by drivers that lose control and leave the road; and there’s certainly no problem with letting stakeholders express that they are have an interest in the issue. You certainly wouldn’t want stakeholders to be denied their opinion.

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  80. Pingback: “Why Do People Need to be Interested in Science Anyway?” | Robinince's Blog

  81. I think Brendan did a poor job of explaining an important position. If I’m being honest, you didn’t come across well either. The financial crash is for me the best example and it was amazing no-one mentioned it. It was ‘science’ in the guise of economics and maths that pretty much killed debate of the system before the crash. Documentary Inside Job shows how politicised the economists had become. Anyone who criticised capitalism pre crash was told to shut up and defer to great sages like Ed Balls.

    So it’s those processes that I think are the issue. I think people like David Nutt do useful work so I thought Brendan’s examples were poor. But politicians do hide behind science and ultimately if the State is subconsciously or consciously trying to use science to prove its ‘opinions’, then through the academic funding system there is an obvious chance of subconscious corruption.

    • robinince says:

      nope, I agree. I’d rather it wasn’t out there. Having not slept for a couple of days, I was at the end of my tether, hence the reason i wrote a piece to sum up what I wish I’d said succinctly. It ended up a show not a debate, and that was my fault.

  82. Pingback: It Only Stays Hard If You Don’t Think About It | On The Matter Of Boots

  83. robinince says:

    I don’t think you understood the point of the post, but at least you managed to read something into it you could react against.

  84. Christine Smith says:

    Marcus, ‘keep facts out of policy?’ Really?! Also, you know Hitchikers is a story right? What you’ve said is totally unhelpful

  85. My WordPress account was hacked. The views above aren’t mine, Robin!

  86. robinince says:

    okay, I’ll get the comment unapproved now

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