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Science and democracy


Ted Nield has a feeling that scientific questions cannot be decided by a show of hands.

Geoscientist 20.8 August 2010

Of all fields of human endeavour, science is the most equitable because, with application and a modicum of intelligence, anyone can make a valid contribution to it. Science is a collective endeavour, made up of the myriad small accretions of knowledge from large swarms of workers, each of whom makes its own contribution to the great edifice, and knows that subsequent generations’ achievements will rest on them for ever. Thus, even a mediocre scientist, which by Gaussian distribution means the majority, can do work for which future generations will be thankful. The arts, by contrast, are cruel and hugely wasteful, like nature herself. What room in the long term, is there for a third-rate poet? In the arts there is no posterity in being average.

That said, not all scientists are equally able. The truly great are transcendent and change the design of the anthill that future scientists will build. After them, nothing is quite the same; and they all have a hell of a time persuading the rest. For, as computer pioneer Howard Aiken (1900-73) famously said: “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats”.

Science is a human endeavour in which the herd instinct – descending occasionally into gang culture – is strong. Most scientists prefer a quiet life and don’t like the furniture to be moved too often. Those who pay scant attention to history often find themselves denying a revolutionary idea because “how can so many people have been so wrong for so long?”. No doubt adherents of phlogiston theory felt this way about Lavoisier. The number of people who believe something has no bearing upon its rightness.

Northern Ireland’s born-again minister of culture Nelson McCausland, writing to the Ulster Museum’s Trustees, recently urged them to reflect creationist and “intelligent design” theories in exhibitions, claiming that its inclusion constituted a “human rights issue”. Mr McCausland, who is also said to believe that Ulster Protestants are a lost tribe of Israel, claims that one third of that tribe believed that the Earth was created about 6000 years ago. For that reason, he said, the Museum should reflect “the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland”.

Well, no, minister. Being scientifically “right” is not decided democratically, and knowledge is science and some is not. And that which is not has no place in a public museum (of anything other than ethnography) no matter how many people believe it.

Dr Tony Bazley, Editor, Earth Science Ireland, said: “The community in Ireland that I know would profoundly disagree that creationist views should be given significant space in publicly funded museums, visitor centres, school science lessons or science textbooks.”

Conall McDevitt MLA represents the constituency that includes the Ulster Museum. In his former life (as a consultant with Weber Shandwick) he assisted with the Society’s Bicentenary in 2007. He told Geoscientist that he was “shocked and saddened by the Minister's comments. They betray a prejudice and ignorance which is entirely unreflective of this region.”

Amen, says this magazine, to that.