Sunday, 14 December 2008
Science is a Freedom
These days, many people have been taught to fear that scientists are "destroying the world" or are engaged in a conspiracy (with a variety of faceless entities, such as "big Pharma") to enslave ordinary people and make them serfs, of whatever it is out there.
There are two points here:
Some of them are confusing "scientists" with "psychiatrists" and these have been two divergent species ever since the latter profession chose to follow Freud. A scientist either tests his own conclusions or allows someone else to test them, a psychiatrist only ever tests or questions someone else's assumptions, never his own. Even making that statement has caused all the psychiatrists reading this to assume...
Science is not an anti-nature thing, nor an anti-human thing. It is simply a formalized expression of something very fundamental to our natures, and at the deepest level, it is allied to what we call "justice".
Science comes from the very beginning of Humanity's emergence, not as a species (because there was more than one "species" that we'd recognize as being as human as we are) but as something slightly more than that. It isn't even what distinguishes us from other primates, because there's an echo of the scientist in what many wild primates, not to mention ravens, do in order to survive.
Consider a hunter-gather, traditionally called "Og" or perhaps, nowadays: "Ray Mears".
When he gathers fruit and berries in order to survive, how does he differ from a bear?
The bear stands upright (when required) and systematically gathers as much as he can, from that which he recognizes, by instinct or experience, to be good. From a distance, it is difficult to distinguish him, by his actions, from Mr Mears.
Well, the bear gathers as much of the good stuff as he can and eats as much as his stomach will stand (which tends to be a great deal.)
Mr Mears gathers as much as he thinks he can deal with, either by eating, or by processing the fruit and berries so that they might be transported, stored, or serve some function other than simple nutrition. He knows all sorts of ways of doing these things. Not simply because he has learned them from older generations of Mears, but because he himself, like all his ancestors, has been curious all his life, and that curiosity, guided by the facility of reason, has allowed him to invent and experiment with, new ways of using things that he can gather. This helps Mr Mears to survive and prosper, because he can find ways of processing food that is not good to eat immediately it is gathered, and which the bear must leave alone. It allows him to take food with him when he travels, or to store it by means other than eating it and growing fat.
That is all science is: a combination of curiosity and reason that is so important to our survival, since so unimaginably long ago, that it is part of our natures, perhaps the very core.
If our curiosity and reason are suppressed, we do not feel happy, we do not even feel well. Even the psychiatrists (or at least the forensic psychologists) will admit that sadists and pathological liars are often only millimetres apart. The cruelest thing you can do to someone, is to force them to accept something, which their reason wishes to reject. The pathological liar does not seek to tell plausible lies: he delights to manipulate, or coerce, people into accepting things which no reasonable person, a safer distance from the liar, would accept. That does not mean that the victim, who is forced to acknowledge the lie as truth, is not a reasonable person. It means that great violence is being done to their power of reason -and that power of reason has become, over millenia of human struggle, more important to their identity than their lives.
Being commanded by a liar to believe something that our reason rejects, is the greatest violence we can suffer. This is the primeval point where justice and science are the same thing. Like primitive atomic particles and forces just after the big bang, they grow apart and into very complex and distinct things, but in their origins, justice and science are the same: the core of our being.
Freedom is the freedom to look at things, to wonder about them, to imagine how they can change, to try it and see. That is science, but it is also how we tell good from evil, guilt from innocence, wisdom from folly.
If we regain our power of reason, and reject those who are telling us what we ought to think, we are already free in the sense that matters most.
The photograph is of a Westland Lysander. Designed to observe battlefields, it was also used to take secret agents to and from Nazi-occpied France during world war two. Nazism was a system of lies and coercion: pathological lying, formalised and inherently sadistic. On numerous occasions, agents fleeing the Gestapo, would have to run after a Lysander as it briefly touched down and taxied into position for an immediate take-off; grabbing the bottom rung of the fixed ladder, which you can just see in the photograph, below the RAF roundel, meant the difference, not just between physical safety and danger, but also between being able to keep their own power of reason and being forced to surrender it, under interrogation, to the Nazis.
Medawar doesn't seek to make a casual comparison between the Nazis and the modern anti-science movements, such as the Animal Liberation Front. There is a direct and real equivalence, suggested by all of his experience of the past thirty-odd years and tested, time and again, by his curiosity and power of reason. Gentle Reader, it isn't scientists who threaten your freedom, happiness and well-being, it's the liars.