Unwanted science dictates

March 7, 1997

NICHOLAS Humphrey's diatribe in Perspective (THES, February 28) was a staggering piece of myopic hypocrisy. He argues that "science does not cajole, it does not dictate" and that it allows us to "choose alternatives", yet his own "scientific" perspective on education is that we are morally obliged to insist on a scientific education for our children and that anyone teaching anything that might be at odds with science should have their right to educate their own children removed. Extraordinary.

It would appear from Humphrey's rather convoluted logic that we are allowed to choose between alternatives, as long as we consistently choose science. If not, we (or rather, our children) will be forced to "choose" science, whether we (or they) like it or not.

Humphrey also assumes that religious beliefs (remember that awkward 98 per cent of the American population who believe in God?) are directly comparable to scientific statements in a way that makes the pronouncement "I believe in God" open to testing in the same way that "there is sodium chloride in that test tube" is, and therefore that science is one (the best) among a series of theories about the world.

This is a common perspective, but it goes against the obvious conclusion that religion is more accurately portrayed as a way in which people organise their lives in a moral and emotional framework. It does not insist on a particular set of ticks on a multiple choice questionnaire about "the world", but provides meaning and purpose within it.

Humphrey appears to be part of increasingly vocal cohort of natural scientists who are so indoctrinated by the wonders of science as an "open" system of thought, that they have no qualms whatsoever in imposing it on others. This is not wildly different from a minister telling us that we must shop in the out-of-town hypermarket and not in the small grocers on the corner because the supermarket gives us more choice.

I would call such advocacy sinister, if there were not such an obvious strain of desperation to it. What seems to annoy Professor Humphrey most is the fact that American citizens continue to eat, breathe, make money, rear children, and live happy and meaningful lives without being fully and meticulously aware of the fact that "evolution can take place without some kind of external intervention" or that "science involved putting theories to the test".

If the good professor took a moment to think about it, he would realise the awful, annoying truth that 99.99 per cent of the human race throughout history have managed this apparently reprehensible feat without difficulty or inconvenience.

Regardless of its experimental rigour, its inductive reasoning, or its falsifiability, natural science still remains largely irrelevant to the way we live. Its capacity to influence our lives indirectly through technology is considerable, but knowing what a molecule is is unlikely to influence my actions today. Whether I know right from wrong assuredly influences what I do. Unfortunately for Professor Humphrey, I have yet to come across the scientific experiment that tests for moral sense.

Martin Mills Dalmeny Street Edinburgh

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