In 1946 George Orwell wrote an interesting essay Politics and the English Language¹, in which he explained how many words are used “in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different”. He was writing about politics, and was focusing at that point on the word ‘democracy’. When I read that sentence, however, I immediately thought of how the word ‘science’ is sometimes misused in this way. It was interesting therefore that a few lines later Orwell included as an example ‘science’ in a list of otherwise political words although, unfortunately, he did not go on to explain how he thought it was being misused. I’ll therefore come up with an example of my own. (The event I’m going to discuss is no longer topical, but the underlying theme — how people can use words to make themselves sound good when the truth is less pleasant — is still very relevant.)
In April 2017 there was a worldwide March for Science. The main event took place in Washington DC, but there were 600 other events in towns and cities around the world. Included in the mission statement was this quote: “Scientists work to build a better understanding of the world around us. Science is a process, not a product — a tool of discovery that allows us to constantly expand and revise our knowledge of the universe. In doing so, science serves the interests of all humans, not just those in power”². If that is the case, it is reasonable to ask why on earth we would need such a march. Since no one could possibly be against such a science, what was the march’s real purpose? What was lying behind this rather bland slogan?
It wasn’t easy to find out. New Scientist magazine, which was openly in favour of the march, noting that “some critics were being irritated by the lack of a coherent answer from organisers”, in an editorial asked “What does the March for Science really stand for?³” In the following issue they noted that there was a “perceived lack of a clear message”. If the organisers themselves were not clear about the purpose of the march, and could not give a coherent answer to a reasonable question, suspicions arise about their real motives.
In the absence of any clear direction from the organisers, the protesters were free to demonstrate for or against anything that took their fancy. Some variously said that they were marching to: stop funding cuts; promote gender equality; raise awareness of climate change; safeguard scientists from attacks; protect science education; oppose anti-science rhetoric; defend the theory of evolution. When expressed in those terms, this on the whole sounds reasonable. Lurking beneath the surface of these soundbites, however, was there a suggestion of an alternative agenda? If you are for science, what exactly is it that you are against? After all, a march for science could be seen merely as a celebration. Indeed there were funk, soul and jazz musicians performing between the speakers. Why was the word ‘protest’ used then, suggesting that they thought the march was actually against something?
Here are a few random observations.
An indication of the confusion amongst all those involved was that the organisers claimed that the March was “not political”. It’s not clear what they meant by this since there were public speeches, and the protesters certainly didn’t get the message; if you are marching with banners and placards, it’s hard to see how you can call what you are doing non-political, one placard reading: “Scientists, Speaking Truth to Power”. Also, the march seemed to be a thinly disguised attack:
- on Trump in the USA. The march was conceived at the Women’s March on Washington, which took place a day after, and in protest against, Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 21st. Originally the protest was going to be called the Scientists’ March on Washington, an obvious reference to the Trump protest.
- on the Brexit vote in Britain. The British protest defended the status of ‘experts’. This was an obvious reference to the politician Michael Gove’s comment during the referendum campaign, that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The British organisers were therefore overtly criticising the vote to leave the European Union.
There is a suspicion that the march was, up to a point, against religion. One placard read “Science — A Candle in the Dark”. I wonder what “the Dark” was a metaphor for. The master of ceremonies was the soul musician Questlove. He said: “It’s been frustrating to watch as certain forces in our society try to squelch science, or their refusal to believe in it or propose alternative realities and facts”. Who was he talking about there? If not religious people, it would have to be those challenging climate change research. In either case, whatever you may think about those alternative claims, is he advocating the suppression of legitimate debate, the intelligent free thinking that the organisers said the March was seeking to promote? It is not possible to squelch science, if it is the search for truth. It is possible, though, to criticise some things that certain scientists say.
Was the march really about free thinking, science in the pursuit of truth, or was it about the maintenance of orthodoxy? An honorary co-chair and front man for the Washington march was Bill Nye. Stephen Meyer noted that he was the perfect choice:
- “March organisers have paid lip service to critical thinking and ‘diverse perspectives’ in science. However, Nye is a good example of someone who promotes science as a close-minded ideology, not an open search for truth. He attacks those who disagree with him on climate change or evolution as science ‘deniers’. He wouldn’t even rule out criminal prosecution as a tool”.
- “Cajoling the public into giving their minds over to the ‘experts’ is Mr. Nye’s specialty”.
Meyer concludes: “The March is about demanding that science, and the public, conform to expectations and embrace only orthodox ideas on evolution, climate change, and more”⁴.
Gareth Sturdy, a teacher in London, made similar observations: “The self-selecting weekend warriors in London last Saturday didn’t speak for scientists, and they certainly didn’t speak for science. This wasn’t a celebration of science, but of scientism: the attempt to adopt science as an all-embracing ideology and push it beyond its purview. The pretence towards a fictitious global consensus and the fear of dissenting opinions had more in common with the medieval church than the Enlightenment. The whole basis of science is continual questioning and argument. Alternative views are the lifeblood of the scientific disciplines… Contrary to what the marchers believe, the most serious threat to scientific thinking today is themselves: people who seek to exploit science to defend themselves from ideas that frighten them”⁵.
David Klinghoffer commented: “Being ‘pro-science’ has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it”⁶.
Here are some of the other messages on the placards:
- “Science Pursuing the Truth”. That is somewhat debatable; many ‘scientists’ seem determined to promote unhesitatingly a materialist, atheist, worldview.
- “Saving the World”. I wonder whether the carrier of this placard remembered that scientists were responsible for creating nuclear weapons.
- “Science is the Answer”. To what exactly?
Obviously, there is a limit to what one can say on a placard, but surely the protesters could have come up with something better than these meaningless soundbites. The organisers’ mission statement, among other things, said this: “We support science education that teaches children and adults to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence”⁷. It would seem that there is a great need for this, especially among the organisers and protesters themselves.
“In today’s world, blind and unthinking deference to ‘The Science’ has become as much a part of Western culture as unquestioned deference to ‘The Church’ used to be”⁸. It’s a shame that those involved in the March for Science could not see this.
3. issue 3122, April 22nd 2017. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising given the magazine’s title, to note that New Scientist was not at all bothered by this, and positively celebrated the lack of a coherent message, saying: “To draw numbers worthy of public attention, the events will have to attract a broad coalition of supporters with disparate views on the proper role of science”, and “diversity of concerns and voices is a strength, not a weakness, when it comes to mass protest. Decide for yourself what science stands for, stand up for it — and stand together”.
8. The Science Delusion, Peter Wilberg, New Gnosis Publications, 2008, back cover