Sunday 1 November 2020

What do they know of science who only science know?

What do they know of the England who only England know,” wrote the much-derided poet Rudyard Kipling more than a century ago. After listening to the excellent debate on science and politics last night, which Radix organised, I wondered whether we should say the same of scientists.

Or indeed anyone whose narrow field of expertise gets in the way of understanding the world. Should we also for example say: What do they know of epidemiology who only epidemiology know? I don’t know.

Some of the debate goes back to C. P. Snow’s famous paper on the Two Cultures. The critic F. R. Leavis condemned it without reading it - “To read it would be to condone it,” he said. And I have some sympathy with that on the grounds that Leavis was objecting, I think, to the idea that arts and science were somehow equal, with the same complexity and moral validity. Which they are not.

Still, everyone – however little they may think about molecules – has something to learn from scientific method, as mediated through the two great 20th century philosophers of science, Popper and Kuhn. Mere knowledge of human or bureaucratic processes is not expertise, for example. Nor is it science.

What seems to me to be, in the long run, unfair to scientists and their reputations is the way that the media use them to fight what are essentially political battles.

Take the Great Barrington declaration, for example, which has barely been reported at all in the UK, where the three top epidemiologists in the world denied that lockdowns were the most effective way forward - on the grounds that they killed as many people as they saved. They were immediately condemned in the American press for "advocating mass murder”.

The day Radix published their declaration in the UK – on the grounds that somebody should – they were the subjects of a hatchet job in the Guardian, in the grounds that one of them had been interviewed on a dodgy US radio programme and that some of the people who had signed their declaration turned out to be (shock horror!) homeopaths.

Now let us leave aside the fraught issue of homeopathy. It seems to that when nobody reports the three top epidemiologists, and when a former law lord like Jonathan Sumption can say (thank you Charlotte!): “This is how freedom dies. When societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat” – then we have a problem.

We have not yet had the lockdown riots that are beginning to emerge in continental Europe. But if most of those who dare step forward and doubt the establishment consensus are right-wing nutcases, then we will be at their mercy for some time to come.

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