Ignorance and distrust

April 18, 1997

Doubts about whether science is, or even could be, moving towards some kind of synoptic enlightenment are one thing. Actual distrust is another. I am not sure about the reasons given by Mary Midgley in her account (THES, March 28) of the public's distrust of science.

There is a great deal of information on record concerning both the general public's amazing ignorance of scientific fact, and its lack of understanding even of the most elementary scientific explanations. In these circumstances some of the public's hostile attitude towards science may be no more than self-defence, adopted by those who have lost the plot.

Evidently there is a massive problem for science educators in schools. We know, however, that teachers can only do so much. They cannot reverse a tide, ie a definite public perception.

The public perceives that those who were, at one time, the most optimistic advocates of science (eg Aldous Huxley, Koestler, H. G. Wells, Bronowski) subsequently fell into bitter despair.

Why? Almost certainly because they saw that modern science is still operating with an exploded paradigm, the Cartesian idea of mathematically modelling the physical world as if it were wholly objective, wholly "out there". That turns us into automata, as Midgley says.

Is there an answer?

We urgently need a new paradigm: this much is clear. It will have to assume from the beginning that the observer is part of the picture. It will be like a set which is a member of itself, or, in this case, a modeller who is part of the model. To create a new paradigm on these lines, though, we need a massive effort on the part of the best scientific brains. It cannot be an easy task to re-conceptualise science in a professionally workable, logical, humanity-consistent style.

It will not happen, though, through fielding classical, axiomatic mathematics, however bizarre: this much is also clear. Axiomatic mathematics is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This recognition says it all. We are dealing here with a ferociously difficult specification.

Midgley identifies the problem admirably, but she does not convey the immense difficulty involved in creating a workable new paradigm for science. It must, of course, be able to look the old one in the eye.

The Gaia, I am afraid, will not do. It amounts, really, to old-fashioned mystification of what is "out there", a sort of attenuated 20th-century religion substitute. That is wishful thinking. No one who succumbed to that, I suggest, could really look Descartes in the eye.

CHRIS ORMELL PER Group, Blackheath, London

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