In Praise of Science: Curiosity, Understanding and Progress

Graham Farmelo fears that this preachy tribute will not find a place on HRH's coffee table

June 24, 2010

Prince Charles made a splash in the media last year by attacking post-Enlightenment values, during a lecture to his Foundation for the Built Environment. "We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now," he said. "I don't believe they do." Thus he gave science sceptics, on a roll since Climategate, a royal seal of approval.

The attack upset quite a few members of the scientific community, which has long felt undervalued in terms of its public status. Over the past few decades, one campaign after another has tried to persuade the public of the wonders of science and its underlying importance to the economy. The tone of the campaigns has perceptibly changed: no longer are the virtues of science rammed down the public's throat; rather, the conventional wisdom is that it is best to adopt the softly-softly methods of "engagement".

This approach appears to have brought dividends, although it is striking that only a small proportion of the most successful science books for the public have taken this line. Instead, they seek to instruct through clear exposition or, in the case of Bad Science, Ben Goldacre's entertaining book and series of newspaper columns, ridicule opponents of scientific orthodoxy. The worry is that such accounts preach to the converted and do relatively little to change the minds of the majority of people who do not read science books.

In Praise of Science, by Dutch theoretical physicist Sander Bais, is an old-fashioned popular science book that is little short of a eulogy. It highlights the subject's greatest successes, from plate tectonics to cosmology, and from chemistry to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It seems to assume that its readers are pretty ignorant: Bais begins his discussion of evolution theory by telling us that it is "of great depth and has had tremendous impact".

He cannot be faulted on his ambition. In its 192 pages, In Praise of Science offers a panorama of science and even manages to shake a stick at technology. Bais tells us that "science is decoding; technology is coding", a distinction that will probably be lost on most of his readers, I fear. Whereas science is a wholly good thing, he believes that technology has a downside. The "dark edge" of technology "is most obvious in the needless wars fought using the most atrocious weapons", although he makes little of the provenance of nuclear bombs in the laboratories of basic science.

Bais accepts that it would be hard to defend a book titled In Praise of Technology. Even Prince Charles would agree with that, and would have little difficulty in pointing to the fallacy of making such a hard and fast distinction between the two.

Bais' Whiggish account of the development of science will make historians wince. Relativity, for example, appears to be solely the work of the lone genius Einstein. But, to be fair, Bais is seeking only to give a broad outline of the history of science. He is at his best in his apposite selection of quotes about the nature of science. His sources range from Rene Descartes to Ian McEwan, and from William Blake to the economist Paul Krugman, who provides one of the book's best passages: "He-said-she-says journalism ... gets in the way of conveying the correct image of science ... You can imagine that if the President of the US (said) that the Earth was flat, the headlines of new articles could read 'Opinions differ on the shape of the Earth'."

Near the end of the book, Bais turns to the philosophy of science. Predictably, he has little time for it. "I am a scientific practitioner," he sighs, and "over the years I have become tired of an overdose of the philosophical ... deliberations." He is no less dismissive of ethical concerns about some aspects of science, as he demonstrates when he approvingly quotes the French molecular biologist Jacques Monod: "The ethic of knowledge is the commitment to the scientific exploration of nature."

This is just the kind of narrow-mindedness that annoys people who object to scientists' self-importance and indifference to others' views of their work. Prince Charles, I suspect, speaks for many in being sceptical of the branch of knowledge that prides itself on its scepticism.

I, for one, think it would be a good thing if In Praise of Science were to find a place on the coffee tables of Highgrove. But for HRH to want to browse through it, he would have to feel that it was not just another preachy tribute to the legacy of the Enlightenment. The book would need a different title and a very different approach.

In Praise of Science: Curiosity, Understanding and Progress

By Sander Bais
The MIT Press, 192pp, £18.95
ISBN 9780262014359
Published 26 March 2010

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