The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Politics and Science

The Good Book

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At the end of the film The Time Machine (the scene does not appear in H G Wells’ original novella), the Time Traveller leaves the present day to spend the rest of his life in the distant future, helping to rebuild the society he has helped to liberate. Before he goes, he takes with him three books from the library, and we are not told what they are. It is an open question directed at the film’s audience: what three books would you take with you?

I’d be tempted to say The Origin of Species. I’d like to get that one absolutely sorted out on day one.

Evolution is a fact. It really, really is. I can just about imagine someone who can look at the overwhelming evidence in its favour and come to some other conclusion; I wouldn’t mind meeting this person, we might talk about it over coffee and an apple danish, it’d be fun. But the existence of people who think that to acknowledge the truth of evolution is a political stance rather than an empirical one truly astonishes me.

And yet people like this do exist. There are countries when a candidate can lose an election for acknowledging that evolution is real, or that climate change is real. Fine, if the objections raised are grounded in facts – but they are not. They have become matters of personal identity, religious orthodoxy and party-political loyalty. To call attention to facts is seen as a personal attack on one’s values. And other people’s values are to be respected, however baseless they are.

What do I ask for, then, in a well-run society? That the veracity of evolution be constitutionally protected?

No. That kind of mindset would only make things worse in the long run.

And this is why, over and above The Origin of Species, I would choose another book. I would find space in my time machine for Mill’s On Liberty. Although Darwin’s book is invaluable for showing us, better than anything else, our true position in the universe, I would argue that On Liberty transcends even this in importance, because it tells us about how to react to theories like Darwin’s.

This book, written in the 1850s, is a brutal attack on anyone who wants to see an idea ­– any idea at all – as being above criticism. It says, beautifully, that the only way of arriving at the truth, or of preventing us forgetting the truths we’ve already uncovered, is by exposing it to constant criticism. Yes, feel free to have your opinions, but be prepared to fight for them. By calling on everyone to attack opinions they do not like – and to defend against attack the ones they hold dear – it casts suspicion on anyone who holds an opinion for any reason other than because they have evidence for it.

The power to criticise ideas – all ideas, held for whatever reason – and to see which ones stand and which ones fall based solely on what the arguments for and against are them are, is a necessary condition for a decent, well-constructed, compassionate society. It might even be a sufficient one.


On Liberty can be found here. Don’t be put off by this man’s egregiously long sentences; his stuff is gold.

Written by The S I

October 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

When Not To Let The Skies Fall

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The search for scientific knowledge is a glorious and essential enterprise. But is it always? Are there some topics for scientific enquiry that are morally wrong to pursue? Are there situations where it might be irresponsible or harmful even to ask a question?

This breaks down into two questions:

1) Are there some experiments the carrying out of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

2) Are there some experiments the outcome of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

The first question is so easy it’s uninteresting. Of course there are limits to how far a scientist can justifiably go in the pursuit of knowledge – just like there are limits to what a businessman can do in the pursuit of money, or a policeman in the pursuit of criminals. A scientist might want to know how long a virus takes to kill a child; but to deliberately infect the child and stand there with a stopwatch would be totally unacceptable. Being a scientist does not excuse you from social responsibilities and obligations.

So question 1 is easy. But what about question 2? Are there questions we should not answer, because it is better to be ignorant than know the truth?

One might be tempted to quote the phrase from antiquity, “Do justice and let the skies fall.” But this is a cop-out. Sometimes knowing the truth about something is actually measurably harmful. There might be good medical reasons for giving a patient a placebo for pain management; informing the patient that it is a placebo might inflict harm on the patient.

This is perhaps a special case. Nevertheless, a scientist must be aware of the consequences of his actions, even if the only action is inquiry. In a society in which racism is prevalent, investigation into correlations between race and intelligence might be used as ammunition for white supremacists. Investigation into the potency of a new strain of virus might cause a panic that harms more people than the knowledge saves.

Ultimately, the truth is worth knowing precisely because it is true. It is a deeply flawed society that can’t handle some unpleasant truths, or that misinterprets truths so badly that people get hurt for no logical reason; and yet that is the society in which we live, unjust, dangerous and full of misconceptions. To proceed blindly in any activity ­– scientific or not – without acknowledging this fact is deeply irresponsible.

Much is made of the need to educate the public about science, and I can’t agree more. Life is made so much richer by understanding, and knowledge is good for the soul. But I feel that what is needed today is not to teach people facts, but to teach people method – not what scientists know, but how they think. Facts about race or risk are less dangerous to a public that understands statistics, that knows what a randomised controlled trial is. There is no better armour for harsh truths.

Written by The S I

September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Organic Chemistry for Marxists

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In chemistry, a substance is defined by its molecular structure. One substance, one structure: if you alter the structure, it is by definition a different molecule. But often things are not that simple.

When considering how some molecules react, it is often necessary to draw them as though they existed as two or more resonance forms. The thiocyanate ion drawn above has two resonance forms, one with the negative charge on the sulphur atom, one with it on the nitrogen. Some reactions occur at the S end, some at the N end. Resonance forms allow us to see  why: they occur wherever the negative charge is located.

When we draw resonance forms, it is important to understand what we are not saying. Neither of these forms really exists; what really exists is something like an average, with the negative charge existing partially over the S, partly over the N.

Resonance forms are convenient fictions that exist only in the minds of chemists, but they are good at allowing us to predict the outcomes of chemical reactions, so we still freely use them despite knowing they are not true representations of the real world.

Which is fine, apparently, unless you’re a Marxist.

In the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, some Soviet chemists declared that resonance forms were incompatible with Marxist theory and should not be used. Marx taught that only the material world was important, making these imaginary structures at best a seductive illusion that would retard progress in the field, and at worst a threat to the very fabric of society.

Whether these scientists truly failed to recognise the models’ utility or were simply trying to gain personal advancement through a display their patriotic Marxier-than-thou attitude is debatable; nevertheless, it grew into a major controversy, probably much to the embarrassment of more practical people who just wanted their reactions to work. A conference was held in 1951 to lay down the law once and for all. The result was a report that stated that the theory of resonance, together with certain unwelcome theories from physics and biology “present a united front in the fight of reactionary bourgeois idealism against materialism.”

Utility won out in the end, and the resonance theory eventually came to be recognised for what it is: a useful tool to understand the behaviour of molecules, depending on and representing reality, but not even pretending to be a perfect depiction of it. But throughout the 1950s in the Soviet Union, textbooks rarely dared to mention resonance.

The Marxist scientist declared that resonance forms were a just a model. And they were absolutely right. Where they went wrong is thinking this was a bad thing.



Drawn from “A Soviet Marxist View of Structural Chemisty: The Theory of Resonance Controversy” by Loren R Graham:

Written by The S I

August 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm