Katy Brand, John Gray and the folly of pinning all our hopes on science

Here’s a quote and a half – from the brilliant Straw Dogs by John Gray (Professor of European Thought at LSE), written ten years ago now:

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

John Gray - successful as a philosopher, unsuccessful as an iron railing

There’s a lot in there, but the reason I quote it is Gray’s point about the widespread assumption in Western culture that science can deliver us from the human condition. Just stating the assumption brings out its inherent incoherence. But it’s an idea that seems to carry on regardless. An episode of Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage back in December was a case in point: Audio clip: Infinite Monkey Cage, 5th December 2011

I’m usually a fan of The Infinite Monkey Cage: it’s Radio 4 doing some accessible science broadcasting through chat and gags. But what interested me here – and where I found myself on the opposite side from the scientists on the show – was that it seems some scientists at least, even some of the nice friendly ones, have come to believe that science can explain everything. Or at least, scientific method is pretty much always the best approach to all subjects (as biologist Steve Jones claims, about 19:45 into the broadcast).

Biologist Steve Jones: smarter than the one in the Sex Pistols, but he's only human

On the face of it, the case for the universal relevance of scientific method might sound reasonable. However, to take one area of my work, interpreting how people respond to communications, I’ve always found the critical and interpretive skills I developed through arts ‘A’ levels and a humanities degree the bedrock of what I do. It is mixed in with social science approaches, business knowledge and so on – there is ‘science’ in the mix – but in working out how people digest the words and images around them, we miss a huge trick if we rely on modes of analysis derived from the sciences only. It would be like doing my job with one hand tied behind my back. It seems sometimes we are slightly afraid of using our whole brains.

So I found myself on the side of comedian Katy Brand in the debate on The Infinite Monkey Cage. There she was, alone as a non-scientist and non-academic (apart from Robin Ince, but he’s with the scientists), with three eminent and brilliant scientists: Sir Paul Nurse and Drs. Steve Jones and Brian Cox. And she finds herself defending people who listen to astrologers. Yet, in my eyes at least, she comes out on top. Why?

Katy Brand, standing up for her theology degree. And despite this picture, she isn't Katie Perry after she married Russell Brand

She says, at about 19:30 in:

It is not science’s responsibility to answer every single question a human might want to ask.

Steve Jones disagreed: he thought science should try and answer all questions. But as he talked, I wondered whether he had actually understood the point. Don’t get me wrong, this guy is way cleverer than I will ever be; but one of the marvellous things about life is that even very clever people aren’t very clever all the time at everything. There is more of the poor, bare, forked animal, as Lear said of the Fool, in us all than we care to acknowledge. Even science professors. Brand’s point was that science was not the only relevant discipline for humans to understand the world we experience.

Lear comforts the Fool: "There, there, now you're in the RSC I promise you'll never have to do street theatre outside the Musee d'Orsay again."

Perhaps Steve Jones knew he was on a sticky wicket. His answer, in which he gave an example of how science had explained scientifically why people born in some months do better than those born in other months, did not answer the point at all, but merely showed that science can explain a lot of phenomena well. What none of the scientists on the programme could explain was why science must always be the best approach. Philosophy, for example, provides many tools for tackling the big questions of life in an intellectually rigorous way. And aren’t these actually the most important questions, if we have humility as humans?

It made me wonder whether the reason for this difference of view was that the problems that Steve Jones was interested in were the ones science is able to try and answer. Whatever he says, science doesn’t really tackle the big questions of what it means to be alive and how to live a good life. Perhaps by not being susceptible to scientific exposition, a question like this becomes less interesting to a scientist. And so the delusion persists that science is the way to explore anything worth exploring.

I wonder if this is why, in my field, survey researchers trying to understand responses to advertising have been so reluctant to acknowledge something as central as the role of emotion in people’s responses. Perhaps it’s a case of “Don’t know how to measure it and it’s ‘subjective’, so it can’t be important”. Will Goodhand of Brainjuicer’s amusing Valentine’s Day stunt on Millward Brown yesterday was making this very point – all captured on video: . Stop press: Millward Brown now disputes this – but much less amusingly. And crucially they didn’t bother making a film, though I suspect they are sufficiently piqued to launch a The Killing-style 20-part production in refutation of the upstart Juicers. Ah research agency spats …

So I’m not championing the humanities over science in a blanket way here – I’m just worried about science trampling over everything else we know in the name of methodological purity. It’s all thinking, ultimately. Whether it’s good or bad thinking – enriching and useful or mistaken and pointless – depends more on the rigour and range of the thinking than its adherence to any single methodology. The science / humanities divide is really a little artificial.

The tendency to bet all our money on science is, if you agree with John Gray, just a modern form of the ancient and not very scientifically kosher human need to put our faith in something outside ourselves to make everything OK. As he puts it in Straw Dogs:

By revering scientists and partaking of their gifts of technology, we can achieve what Pascal hoped for from prayer, incense and holy water. By seeking the company of earnest investigators and intelligent machines, we can stupify our reason and fortify our faith in mankind.

Gray does not believe in having “faith in mankind”. For him, science’s ability to improve human nature is just that – a belief without foundation in science itself.

Do read Straw Dogs by the way. You have to love a work of serious scholarship which does not wear its learning on its sleeve and that ends with:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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