Tag Archives: richard dawkins

A Bird that Teaches Itself to Sing: The White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

I’ve just finished Richard Dawkins’s self-narrated audiobook of  An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, where, introducing a task given to him by his research supervisor Niko Tinbergen, related to nature versus nurture aspects of animal behaviour, he makes special mention of the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli).  As it happens, earlier this year I caught this native of North America pecking at a fig.

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

Is behaviour built in at birth – innate and instinctive?  Or is it learned from experience?  One way ethologists, who study animal behaviour, try to answer such questions is to compare the behaviour of subjects artificially deprived of normal early life learning opportunities with those raised in their natural habitat.

Richard DawkinsIn the case of birdsong, tests on Sedge Warblers show they automatically know their song without ever hearing the tune from another bird.  As Dawkins puts it, they ‘fumble’ towards the final song, trying different sounds and sequences from which they assemble a correct version; so the process is innate: it’s all ‘nature’.

The White-crowned Sparrow also teaches itself to sing its unique song by fumbling and picking out the good bits, but, unlike the Sedge Warbler, it needs to have heard its song from another White-crowned sparrow in early life; it needs a prompt to know where it’s going – so to speak.  As for many animal behaviours, including human behaviours, the White-crowned Sparrow’s song is the product of a nature-nurture combo of innate and learned influences.  Dawkins wonders what similar early life deprivation experiments, within ethical bounds, might be made to study the human condition.

You can hear the White-crowned sparrows song here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Unweaving the Rainbow

I took this short sequence in the garden this afternoon.  No photo-shopping, just a nice illustration of the splitting of sunlight into it’s component colors by refraction through a water drop – shuddering in the breeze after a storm.

rainbowThe simplest of things, it put me in mind of John Keats’s supposed lament that Isaac Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining the science behind it, the underlying sentiment of which he included in the poem Lamia.  I say supposed, because I can’t find a primary reference to Keats actually ‘having a go’ at Newton over his prism or whatever.  Lamia however speaks for itself (see below).

Rainbow over LondonRichard Dawkins gives an alternative view in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, where he argues scientific understanding enhances rather than diminishes beauty.  I’m with Dawkins on this one.  And while those going through life without a scientific education (for whatever reason) experience it in a way that is different, I believe they are also simply missing out.

Keats’s rainbow reference appears in his poem Lamia Part II:

What wreath for Lamia? What for Lycius?
What for the sage, old Apollonius?
Upon her aching forehead be there hung
The leaves of willow and of adder’s tongue;
And for the youth, quick, let us strip for him
The thyrsus, that his watching eyes may swim
Into forgetfulness; and, for the sage,
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Darwin, Dennett and Dumbo’s Magic Feather

Since I  posted this blog, the BHA have issued a video of the whole event. So for a summary – read the blog; for the whole smash…here it is!

Disney’s Dumbo the Elephant got rid of his magic feather.   He realised it was  just a temporary crutch that gave him the courage to be all that he could be.

For philosopher Daniel Dennett, speaking on ‘A Darwinian Perspective on Religions’ , religion is just like Dumbo’s feather – a crutch we can do without.   This is a summary of the British Humanist Association (BHA) event I  joined earlier this month at South Place Ethical Society’s Conway Hall in London.

Daniel Dennett speaking at the BHA event at Conway Hall
Daniel Dennett speaking at the BHA event at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)

Chairing this second lecture in the BHA’s  Darwin 200 special lecture series, Richard Dawkins  introduced  Daniel Dennett as the scientists’ philosopher; someone who takes time out to keep up to date with the scientific literature.  And strangely perhaps, it is Dennett the philosopher, not Dawkins the scientist, of these two champions of atheism, who tends to take the more studious, less obviously attacking,  line on religion.

Daniel Dennett with Richard Dawkins at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)
Daniel Dennett with Richard Dawkins at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)

Taking to the podium in cheerful good humour, prompted in part by the obvious similarity between his own bearded visage and that of the cardboard Darwin cut-out standing stage left, Dennett launched enthusiastically into the reverse engineering of religion.

What was in store for the world’s religions?  Would they sweep the planet?  Would they die out rapidly or drift out of fashion –  like the smoking habit ?  Or would they transform themselves into creedless moral entities – keeping up the good work but without the mumbo-jumbo?    Whatever the future holds  for religion, Dennett’s mantra is that if we are going to have any steer over it, we had better  understand it – from a scientific point of view.

A Darwinian Perspective on Religion (Photo Tim Jones)
A Darwinian Perspective on Religion (Photo Tim Jones)

Dennett treats religion as a Darwinian phenomenon.  Human beings put a lot of energy into it – so what’s the biological justification behind it?

Religions, Dennett argues,  are the inevitable product of word evolution.   He see words simply as memes that can be pronounced.  Memes – the name coined by Dawkins  to describe units of cultural information transfer that are  in some ways similar to genes.   Further, words and letters represent a digitisation of language, meaning they can be accurately replicated – even without understanding, because of their consistency with a semantic alphabet.  So however crazy an idea expressed in words might be, it can still multiply irrespective of its meaning being understood or making rational sense.

How might the first word memes have come about?   Using a Darwinian analogy,  Dennett likened the first word memes  to wild animals evolving through natural selection in which “evolution is the amplification of something that almost never happens” .   As such, it would only have taken someone to give an arbitrary  name to a strange noise in the woods one day (fairy, goblin, monster etc.), for that name to eventually get around a wider community.  The seeds of superstition would have been sown.   Some  notable memes, by virtue of a special repulsiveness  or  attractiveness, would have survived into folklore.   It is these memes, Dennett said, that are “the ancestors of the gods” at the core of the world’s religions.

Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (Photo Sven Klinge)
Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (Photo Sven Klinge)

But that was only phase one.  When these ‘wild memes’ are purposefully looked at, studied, and manipulated by people, they become more powerful.  Some humans (e.g.priests) might dedicate themselves to keeping such memes alive and thriving,  even when by themselves they are no longer very convincing.   The modern religions resulting from this process and  that still survive today represent a tiny fraction of all past religions, and are analogous to surviving languages or species.

Good design means these husbanded memes have inbuilt mechanisms for survival.  For example, many religions make man a ‘slave to the meme’ – it’s called subservience.

Dennett described an interesting possible influence of the placebo effect in our cultural religious development.  Human susceptability to ritual may be a result of our reproductively successful ancestors being the ones who – through receptiveness to placebo – enjoyed the health benefits of shaman ritual.   Other self-maintenance devices built into  modern religions include the glorification of incomprehensibility, warnings not to engage with reasonable criticism (on the basis that you’re talking to the Devil, and he’s a better debater than you), and the idea that a belief in a god is a pre-condition for morality.

And that brought Dennett near to his close, and us full circle to Dumbo, and the argument that we have religion because we need it.  Dennett argued we no longer need the crutch represented by Dumbo’s feather.   Indeed, it’s harmful to hang on to religion, what with the likes of cult suicides and  death sentences for blasphemy.   But religion is most harmful  as a threat to a rational world view.   And how does religion differ from other factors that disable rationality, such as drugs or alcohol?  Only religion, Dennett said, “honours the disability”.

Also Interesting – Dennett’s debate last year with Robert Winston

“Very Little Can Stop The Train” Sir David King On Media Reporting and MMR

I’ve just returned from the annual British Humanist Association Darwin Day Lecture, this year delivered by Sir David King at a session chaired by Richard Dawkins.

Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)
Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)

King is a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, and now heads up a multi-disciplinary organisation tackling climate change – The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment- at Oxford University.

His talk entitled  ‘Can British Science Rise to the New Challenges of the Twenty First Century?’ was very similar in content to one I watched him give at a PAWS event in November, and dealt less with British Science, and more with the complexities of tackling global climate change.   There were some new angles, but I’d refer you to my previous blog HERE – inspired by Sir David’s earlier talk – rather than repeat myself.   I believe a podcast of tonight’s event will appear on the BHA site in due course.

So perhaps, given the greater relevance to current debate over poor media reporting of science, and particularly that related to MMR (and the Goldacre/LBC radio encounter), you’d like to hear what Sir David volunteered tonight on that subject.  It came up in response to a question from the floor about the Daily Mail.  Sir David’s transposed response:

We’ve now got a measles epidemic growing in this country, and the measles epidemic is the result directly of a very poor piece of science from John Wakefield, somehow being published in the Lancet – should never have been published – the database was far too small.  And then gaining momentum in the media, and it’s not only the Daily Mail, John Humphreys was one of those pushing that… that the connection between MMR and autism raised real questions, and the take-up of the MMR vaccine began to fall very dramatically.  And my prediction a few years ago was that we would approach something like a hundred deaths a year from, amongst children, from measles as a measles outbreak occured, inevitably.

If you do models and you drop below 80% uptake of the vaccine, the measles must come back.  Of course the Daily Mail’s campaign was one of the instruments that got people very worried about that particular issue.  So I think that was an example where the science was so clear.  Let me tell you.  There was a Danish study of all the children born in Denmark over ten years of whom 15% had not had the MMR vaccine, and 85% had.  The statistical incidence of autism in the two groups was the same.   Now just to be on the…on the…..when I say the same within statistical error.  The nice thing was, from the point of view of those who were sceptics, that amongst the group who didn’t have the vaccine, there was a slight larger number- larger percentage – with autism.  Now any parent worrying about the situation, just needs surely to be given that set of statistics, and yet the Daily Mail wouldn’t publish it when I went to them.   What am I saying, [finding his words]well, it rarely gets their story right.  There is…there is a sort of disbelief, but I’m afraid when a newspaper is running a campaign, there’s very little can stop the train

To which Richard Dawkins, with a look of amazement and with apparent reference to the Daily Mail not printing the Denmark evidence, said – “I’m shocked

Secularist Of The Year

The National Secular Society’s annual award for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.  I joined the event this afternoon, which was also a celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary, at the Imperial Hotel in central London.

Dr Evan Harris MP and  Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood
Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood and Richard Dawkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The awards were made by Professor Richard Dawkins, and comprised a golden ammonite trophy and a cheque for £5000.  Both winners declined to keep the money and donated it instead for next year’s prize.

Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy before presenting it
Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy as Keith Porteous-Wood looks on. (Photo Tim Jones)

A range of politicians, scientists, celebrities, and commentators of various types were in the audience: including from the scientific community Prof.Peter Atkins.  Prof.Steve Jones, a previous year’s winner of the prize, sent best wishes.  Science journalists included Simon Singh (Fermat’s Last Theorem), and Ben Goldacre (Bad Science).   I also spotted former news presenter Anna Ford, and comedian Robin Ince.

Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins
Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was something of a coup for the NSS.   Secularists have been fighting for years what has seemed like an unwinnable battle, and I sense the movement still can’t quite believe its success.  While not used since the 1970s, Christian evangelicals had been pushing for a revival in the application of the law.

Lord Averbury with trophy
Lord Averbury with trophy (Photo Tim Jones)

A statement on the NSS website after the event said: ‘The ancient law was called the common law offence of blasphemous libel, and was widely thought to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, the Government had not been keen to abolish it, we believe because of fear of discomforting the Established Church. They see abolition as an attack on their privileged position and a possible first step towards disestablishment.’

Dr Evan Harris MP
Dr Evan Harris MP (Photo Tim Jones)

It was a lively afternoon, where the company, food, and entertainment were all excellent.   The formal entertainment took the form of a re-enactment of a debate held in Oxford in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam).   In ultimate irony, Wilberforce was (a little too convincingly) played by Terry Sanderson, the President of the NSS.  Given the audience, the winner of the debate was never at issue.

Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce
NSS President, Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce (Photo Tim Jones)
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Bishop 'Soapy' Samuel Wilberforce

Joint winner Lord Avebury’s story is equally ironic.  His grandfather, one of Darwin’s great supporters and a member of the ‘X Club‘ with Huxley, was not actually an atheist: he was too ‘conventional’, Avebury said.   Indeed, incongruous with his grandson’s award today, his grandfather had been instrumental in having Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evan Harris, who one critic has described as humourless, was everything but, quipping in surprise as he received his golden ammonite trophy: “I was always taught at Hebrew School that the Ammonites were slain by the Israelites”.

Two Cultures

Are you a scientist, or more of an artistic person?   Or maybe you’re a bit of both?  Do you care?  And does it matter?

two cultures
Has the arts-science gap widened fifty years on? ©Tim Jones

It mattered to CP Snow in 1959, when he wrote the essay ‘The Two Cultures’.   Snow saw society split into two groups, or cultures: the artistic intellectuals and the natural scientists (natural because they study the natural world).   Each misunderstood the others language, ideas, and contribution.  The relationship was often one of unproductive hostility.

Fifty years on, towards the end of last month, I joined the London Consortium’s  ‘Art and Science Now’ programme, to see how Snow’s ideas are standing up in the eyes of leading figures from the world of arts, science, public policy, science communication and philosophy.

This post is part summary, part observation, and part photo gallery (thanks largely to  Sven Klinge, whom I met at the conference and who provided most of the pictures here).   Not all the speakers from the Dana event are reported here.   Don’t read any significance into that – its just a time issue.   Also, plenty of additional ideas came through in the final panel session and Q&A, which are likely to inspire future posts – but there’s more than enough to be going on with here.    The full event ran for three days, 22nd-24th January; I joined on 23rd and 24th.

NOTE: now includes a summary of Gillian Beer’s paper not included in the original post

First Day – 23rd January, Science Museum’s Dana Centre

The session kicked off with Steve Connor, Director of the London Consortium, introducing keynote speaker George Rousseau.

Reading a prepared text, Rousseau’s talk majored on the virtues and challenges of cultural collaboration framed as  inter-disciplinary working, including the concept of ‘bridging’.

Today, multi-disciplinary working is needs-driven by otherwise insoluble complex problems, yet we attack and treat with suspicion those who move between disciplines  – “we rush to shoot them down”.   Acknowledging that the best minds have always worked in multiple fields (Rousseau made the standard reference to Lunar Men here) doesn’t seem to help us.

Moving on to ideas of responsibility, can those on each side of the science / humanities divide understand each other sufficiently to be conscious of their respective responsibilities in the world?   Scientists might understand the arts better than artists understand science, but so what if they can’t sort out their responsibilities?   Can we not work with a unified sense of knowledge to achieve that?

Rousseau’s vision is for a world in which we all work across boundaries and know what we have to do (this is what academics call a crude summary).   Rousseau went on to discuss at length what that vision might mean within academia, such as the emergence of multi-disciplinary selection committees filling leading academic appointments with multi-skilled candidates.

Rousseau’s Q&A was short and disappointing.   A question on unified knowledge – asking how the different ways in which artists and scientists define the word knowledge might prevent sensible commune, was not engaged with.  I took the question to mean knowledge derived from ‘feeling’ – acceptable and embraced by the artist, as opposed to the scientists’ equivalent based on the ‘rational’.  But  Rousseau simply declared the word knowledge to be a lexical term and that he didn’t really know what knowledge was.  Considering the forum, I found that answer surprising and unfulfilling.

The Science Museum’s Robert Bud opened the afternoon session with his keynote speech.  Opening his talk with a photo of Dawkins’s atheist bus, Bud quickly took us back a hundred years, to the split between the  ‘two sides of the road’  in South Kensington – close enough to what we call the V&A and the Science Museum today.  The ‘arts side’ was painted as a backward looking centre for the maintenance of elitist taste; the science side more practical and forward looking, representing progressive materialism and a rejection of the spiritual.  The tension between these, Bud argued, formed the roots of Snow’s cultural divide.

Bud set his mission to the clarification of Snow’s real meaning.   In developing the story, he pointed to the iconic importance of Francis Crick’s DNA double helix, not only as the basis for life and replacement for the soul, but as the basis for Crick’s, and later Snow’s, fundamental beliefs.

Referencing an essay by Jacob Bronowski, Bud linked Snow to Crick.   With a letter from Snow to Bronowski as evidence, he showed that the content of Bronowski’s essay,  ‘the abacus and the rose – a dialogue concerning the two world systems‘, was aligned with the real intent behind Snow’s  essay.  Bronowski couched his text as a dialogue between Potts, a Cricks-type scientific stereotype, and Harping, a Kingsley Amis-type reader in English.  In the fictional debate, the artistic protagonist sees no beauty in life unless there is some subjectivity or element of human judgment associated with it.  Potts on the other hand, the scientist, has no need of that.  In other aspects too, the  Harping character generally meets our modern stereotype of an anti-technology, anti-progress, luddite.  This is starting to remind me of the themes in Dawkins’s ‘Unweaving the rainbow‘.

Sure enough, having implicated Crick with Bronowski’s Potts character, and aligned Bronowski’s views with the intent of Snow’s essay, Bud now linked Crick to Richard Dawkins.  Not only through their shared activity on genetic themes, but also through Dawkins’s atheism, expressed so recently on the sides of another British cultural icon – the London Bus.

Through this elegant, methodical, approach with use of evidence, Bud had boxed down Snow’s intended meaning to the sort of black and white intellectual stand-off that is unfashionable in some quarters.   Alan Sokal would later show a similar level of attention to the content and bounding of his argument.

Bud concluded, for the avoidance of any doubt, with this reference to the two cultures debate:  [it has] “not been primarily about the conflict between academic disciplines, between whether history or physics is more important, it’s been about materialism against the reality of non-material entities; about god and life.  Thank you

Second Day – 23rd January, Tate Modern Art Gallery

This was the first time I’d seen Marcus du Sautoy in the flesh.

Marcus du Sautoy - Bridging
Marcus du Sautoy – Bridging (Photo Sven Klinge)

With an appearance and demeanor  somewhere between a children’s TV presenter and a younger Jasper Carrott, wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase  ‘i are scientists‘,  I can see how he’ll fit well into Dawkins’s old job, but definitely not his shoes.

Full of energy and wit, there is also something of the diplomat about du Sautoy.  The recurring theme of  ‘bridging’ came up, with maths as the unlikely bridge between science and the arts.  Du Sautoy explained the mathematical structure of music; he is involved in a range of projects that link the two.  He was sympathetic and supportive of the ‘artist in residence’ type of cross-rift exchange that one audience member was involved with.

Sad as it might seem, I’ve often pondered on behalf of Anthony Grayling, as to the wisdom of a book-branding philosophy that entails the title ending with the words “…of things”: ‘The Mystery of Things’, ‘The Reason of Things’, ‘The Meaning of Things’, ‘The Heart of Things’, ‘The Form of Things’ , for one tract of his extensive range of popular philosophy books.  Maybe it’s just me, but agonising over a purchasing decision in a bookstore, I can never remember which of these ‘things’ editions I already own, and invariably end up leaving the store empty handed.

Anthony Grayling and Ben Goldacre (Photo Sven Klinge)
Anthony Grayling and Ben Goldacre (Photo Sven Klinge)

Yet Grayling remains the philosopher I feel I could most comfortably engage with in chat over a beer.  His ability, without patronising, to transpose  complex ideas into the common tongue, combined with an unforced sense of humour, is appealing.

Grayling approached Snow from historical and educational perspectives.  Again, as Bud had stressed earlier, Snow was late to the debate.  In the early decades of the 20th century, Wittgenstein , whose texts Grayling reminded us would be familiar from our previous night’s bath time  reading, had defended the ‘feeling’ world of morality and religion from the reductive encroachments of the empirical scientists’ world view.

Anthony Grayling (Photo sven Klinge)
Anthony Grayling (Photo Sven Klinge)

In 1880, at a time when the so-called Civic Universities, like my alma-mater Birmingham, were for the first time concentrating on scientific and practical subjects, Thomas Huxley addressed the issues perceived around the arts and sciences, spelling out the importance of a scientific education for all in understanding the world.  In retort, Huxley’s friend Matthew Arnold, while agreeing with much of his colleague’s argument for science, strongly defended a complementary role for the humanities as a vehicle for human reflectivity – amongst other virtues.

Yet class  was to override any happy balance that the Huxley-Arnold discourse might have anticipated.  The wealthy and influential social elite, trained in the classics from school through to Oxbridge, were empowered and equipped to exercise a disproportionate influence over society, compared that is to the growing, parallel yet separate, class of technically proficient industrialists.

A.C.Grayling and Gillian Beer
A.C.Grayling and Gillian Beer (Photo: Tim Jones, Darkroommatter.com)

Key developments in the twentieth century, Grayling argued, were a change in status for science in recognition of its  indispensability to modern infrastructure and the exercise of war, and the increase in complexity and requirement for specialism in scientific pursuits.

Specialism led to streaming in the schools system, separating the population at an early age into classicists and scientists.  It was this galvanisation through specialisation of an already divisive educational system that, Grayling argued, had prompted Snow’s commentary.  The powerful elite saw the importance of science, but without understanding.  It prompted the pithy rationale of keeping the “expert on tap, not on top”.   Efforts by the ‘new’ universities to introduce reciprocal training for arts and science students enjoyed  abject failure.

In summing up the position today, Grayling considered that in important respects, and specifically with regard to the scientific literacy of the general public and elected officials, Snow’s gap is very much wider fifty years on.  Further, this condition is damagingly influential on how scientific issues are being read.  Grayling pointed to how the public debate on evolution could only persist through ignorance of biology, causing a mistaken belief that there is any substance at all in the contrary argument.  The tradition of thinking in the humanities is, Grayling believes, more towards the need for neat answers and closure to issues and debates, representing the antithesis of the scientific acceptability of open ended questions.

Grayling closed with an appeal for scientific literacy, achieved in part through a change in attitude towards, and engagement as adults with, life-long learning.

The relevance of Charles Darwin to a debate on Snow might not be obvious; yet Gillian Beer made it so.

Gillian Beer on our attitude to extinction (Photo Sven Klinge)
Gillian Beer on our attitude to extinction (Photo Sven Klinge)

Before developing her main theme around extinction and Darwin, Beer informed us that Snow’s main reason for wanting to see science and technology working effectively in the world was so it could be used to combat global poverty.   Maybe that is a less well known, more human, driver in the debate around Snow’s motivations?

As it turns out, as illustration, Darwin’s attitude to extinction, and the various interplays of scientific, social, and personal experience that influenced that attitude, have much to inform our thinking.    When human beings are involved, thoughts and actions are rarely down to science alone.

For Darwin, said Beer, extinction was an ordinary necessity in the process of natural selection.  Without extinction there would be no new animals, no improvement.  And anyhow, the whole process dovetailed nicely with the Victorian cultural values of progress and hierarchy.

There was some sadness attached to species loss, yet the world remained full and in balance.   Why react?  Extinction is a gradual process; Darwin scoffed at the idea of cataclysm.   And there was every reason to believe the animal kingdom could continue to look after itself well into the distant future.

The very far  future was different though.  A cooling sun and dying earth played on Darwin’s mind.  The religious had their afterlife, but for Darwin the finality of an extinction of man was an intolerable prospect.

How different things are today.

Extinctions are more simultaneous and widespread; we contemplate E.O.Wilson’s ominous forecast of 50% species loss over 50 years.  And we feel guilt.  We can place five historical mass extinctions, and further cataclysm is a real prospect on a warming earth.

More positively, stuffed animals in glass cases have made way for movie films of living, moving, animals.    And, while like Darwin, we  might not see a personal eternity, our understanding of genes at least gives us some intellectual compensation that something  continues.

In her close, Beer came back to the theme of the interaction of science and culture over time, [concluding that while]:

different elements of Darwin’s theory point in different directions, and have been pressed into service by opposed ideologies; that does not undermine his experimental evidence or his theoretical reach, but it does I think demonstrate how the cultures of scientific enquiry, social assumption, and bodily experience all interact, over time, to change ideas.  Thankyou.


This was my second serving of Ben Goldacre in a week; having heard  him speak at a Centre For Inquiry event reported here.

Ben Goldacre
Ben Goldacre (Photo Sven Klinge)

Today, less spontaneous and the better for it, Goldacre’s rant was unambiguously focused on the evils of the ‘humanities graduate editors’ of  mainstream news media.He really hates these guys, whom for Goldacre most closely resemble the Snowian (Snowic?, Snowoid?) stereotype of artist as scientific philistine –  ignorant, and dangerously active with it.

Goldacre’s thesis is that we have moved beyond a condition of mere disconnect in which arts graduates are dismissive of science, to one in which the same group feel entitled to make comment in areas and on subjects they know nothing about.   He resents the lack of in-depth science reporting in the mainstream media and, as a mantra now, champions the non-specialist  but educated reader – the people who “did bio-chemistry at Leicester, and now work in senior management at Marks & Spencers“.   He went on to illustrate his talk with slides covering a whole range of mercilessly crass and inaccurate reports extracted from his beloved tabloids and equally unsafe broadsheets.  For more, see Ben’s book Bad Science for an enjoyable read.

Goldacre gets his important points across with a sense of fun.   That said, today’s comic highlight was at his own expense when, during the final panel session, a deferential compliment back-fired.  Having answered a string of audience questions specifically addressed to him, Ben now paused to announce that as a mere ‘D-list’ public intellectual he should defer to the  ‘B-list’ public intellectuals – Grayling and Sokal – seated either side of him.Ben’s categorisation was arguably correct for a small population that counts Dawkins in its number, but that didn’t stop Ben changing colour in response to Grayling’s playful objection to his grade.

Jonathan Miller doesn’t like to be called a polymath.

Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller (Photo Sven Klinge)

But what do you call a writer, performer, neurologist, and internationally distinguished director of theatre and opera?  Perhaps Steven Connor’s introduction of Miller as an intellectual amphibian was more acceptable; it got a smile.

Sitting across from his interviewer, Associate Director of the London Consortium Colin McCabe, Miller played upon his  intimidating status to the full, a status that has earnt him the right, and the expectation from others, to speak plainly.  He did so with a vengeance.

The idea of  ‘Two Cultures’ would be first a mystery, and second anathema, in the household of Miller’s formative years.   Engaged equally and variously as artists and scientists, the family were  simply doing what intelligent people did; they flitted effortlessly between interests.

Jonathan Miller (Photo Sven Klinge)
Jonathan Miller (Photo Sven Klinge)

Schooling had played a part, but only in the form of an unruly master who ignored the formal curriculum, a reference that put me in mind of Richard Dawkins’s  reminiscing  about his happy days at Oundle School.   But how far would those examples get, elitist at best by current fashion, as educational models today?

With his neurologist cap on, Miller shared his fascination with the mind’s learning and skills capabilities.  For example, taking three days off from a failed activity can result in a skill magically appearing, subconscious processing  having kicked in unbeknown.

Miller’s latest interest is to form shapes and assemblies out of metal, just structures that interest him and which, again, he resists to label as art.   Art and science are very different things to Miller.  Most art is “to do with people doodling“, while science is “quite clearly directed enquiry prompted by a context which determines what is going to count as an interesting problem“.   He sees the “rightness” of what constitutes a satisfactory artistic endeavour is totally different to the “rightness”  of what can be concluded from science.

Miller took a similar line to Bud, in so far as he saw the important differences between art and science as quite fundamental.  As for the two helping each other out, Miller has  “deep suspicion of this notion of being artist in residence‘, a reference to an earlier audience point, and what he saw as an unnecessary  formalisation given that art and science are ‘in residence’ within each of us all the time.  He pointed to a nine year period between 1905 and 1914, when interesting developments ranging from relativity to cubism, to the de-construction of music, appeared as the products of a natural cross-fertilisation of interests.  The first cubist artists, responsible for the development of military camouflage, were not “artists in residence“, but “artists in uniform“, their input naturally falling into place.

Miller’s point, that the propensity for the arts and natural sciences to unconsciously intermingle is a product of the time we are living in, may well be valid.  Yet do we live in such a golden age today?  Maybe we need to make some clunky ‘artist in residence’ type gestures to kick the right-thinking along.  Miller conceded that the very complexity of science today made polymathism [my word!] a challenge; there are too few hours in the day.  Indeed, to expand on a recurring theme, it is problematic enough today for scientists in the same subject area to understand each others’ work.  In my experience, it is the same complexity and associated promise of narrowness that drives potential candidates away from a training or career in science.

In a forgivable ploy to avoid final-session empty seat syndrome, Alan Sokal was held back till the 4.00pm slot.

Alan Sokal and Patrick Wright
Alan Sokal and Patrick Wright (Photo: Tim Jones, Darkroommatter.com)

Sokal is something of an icon for followers of the arts-science debate.  In 1996, he wrote a spoof academic paper parodying the pseudo-intellectual content and style then being used by an academic group known as the cultural relativists – signatories to a particularly strong  flavour of post-modernism.  Their thesis as it applies to science is that science is made up – constructed –  by people to meet their political wants.  Any cultural relativist could write a ten thousand word essay on how over-simplistic that definition is; but that’s partly the point.  There is a socio-cultural angle to the most astringent definitions of science, but in the 80s and 90s it all got out of hand.  Meanwhile, Sokal’s meaningless paper was accepted and published by the journal ‘Social Text’.  His own revelation that the paper was meaningless did much to expose the low standards of evidence and understanding in the prevailing discourse of the cultural relativists.  It also precipitated what became known as ‘the science wars’.

Alan Sokal having a happy birthday (Photo Sven Klinge)
Alan Sokal having a happy birthday (Photo Sven Klinge)

Speaking on his birthday, Sokal immediately set out a field he could play on.  That meant  focusing on the relationship of science and scientific inquiry with society as a whole, rather than the Snow question per-se, and defining exactly which definition of science he would be talking about.

Sokal’s was an  appeal for a scientific world view in which we are all scientists, some better than others perhaps, but all working to the same rules.    The corner stones of this vision would be clear thinking and a respect for evidence.

Clear thinking meant also the clear writing that Sokal, and earlier Grayling, had demanded.  But what is science?   It suits some academic commentators not to bolt down definitions in this way, they see it as restrictive and narrowing of debate, but Sokal is firmly out of that camp.  It’s worth pondering Sokal’s four definitions of science:

  1. It denotes an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world
  2. It denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge
  3. It denotes the community of scientists with its mores and social and economic structure
  4. It denotes applied science and technology

Again, there are those who would argue the first two cannot be discussed outside of the second two, and would attach especial dependency of 1,2,and 4 on 3 – the social aspect.  Not so Sokal.

As if nothing had changed in the thirteen years since his ‘exposure’ publication, he launched a scathing attack on those who would deny that scientific knowledge constitutes objective knowledge of a reality external to ourselves.   In these moments, in that lecture hall, it felt like Snow’s rift had evaporated – ‘science’ had won.  There was no robust response from the floor as Sokal ridiculed one sociologist after another by relaying quotes from his book Beyond The Hoax.   For example:

the validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence – Kenneth Gergen

the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge – Harry Collins

for the relativists such as ourselves, there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such – Barry Barnes & David Bloor.

For Sokal, this type of writing, and the thought behind it, aims to confuse truth with claims of truth.  Of course, any post-modernist worth his salt would head that one off at the pass with a denial of there being any absolute truth.   Sokal conceded that the more extreme forms of post-modernist thinking were now in retreat, in part due to his own efforts, but mostly due to the example provided by George Bush of where “science bashing” can worryingly lead.

A diversion into pseudoscience complemented Goldacre’s talk and led into the real point Sokal wanted to address  – the universal applicability of the scientific method across all areas of human activity.  Why do we use one set of standards for evidence in physics, chemistry and biology, and then relax the standard for religion, medicine or politics?  Sokal interestingly framed his argument for a unified approach as the “inverse of scientific imperialism“, whereby science should be seen as just one instance of the application of a rational world view in which empirical claims are supported by empirical evidence (the antithesis of dogma).

So at the end of the conference we had returned to a dichotomy of  rational and dogmatic world views  that Bud, the day before, had used to characterise and clarify as Snow’s true intent, and which Grayling had reinforced as the real issue.  And in conclusion to his talk, Sokal stated his belief that the transition from the dogmatic to an evidence-based world view is very far from being complete.


Gillian Beer was King Edward VII Professor at the University of Cambridge

Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor.  He has a weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian newspaper

Anthony Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London

Marcus du Sautoy is Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford

Jonathan Miller is a neurologist, writer, TV presenter, director of plays, and many other things!

Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University and Professor of Mathematics at University College London

Mainstream Press on this topic

The crossing of the intellectual divide – Steve Connor, The Indpendent (newspaper) 6th Feb 2009.  Connor’s article makes mention of events at the day of the conference I did not attend at Birkbeck College, so worth a read.

Stephen Fry, Science, and the Night I Lost My Gorilla to a Python

This Sunday 12th October, Stephen Fry will present the first of a series of programmes recounting his epic 50 State tour of the USA. Fry is well known as an actor, TV presenter, novellist, film maker, and general wit and, as this quote from the current Radio Times reminded me, he’s also a great fan and defender of science:

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry (Picture credit: Radio Times online)

“The best definition of science I have ever heard (embarrassingly, it’s my own) is ‘humility in the face of facts” and yet science in America is always being accused of arrogance! Arrogance? Compared to those Sunday evangelists and others who claim that truth is ‘revealed’ in a book, one book, whose journey into existence is traceable in history, whose fragments and parts and apocrypha were arbitrarily decided by compromise and pragmatic need? Yet America’s insistence on equal validity between ‘revealed’ truth and evidence-based truth has meant that evolution is now pitted against so-called ‘intelligent design’, a barbarously irrational mixture of pseudoscience and fallacious argument that poses itself ‘innocently’ as a credible alternative.” (Stephen Fry – Radio Times)

No mistaking Stephen’s position on ‘Intelligent Design‘ then.

This sort of comment is consistent with the Stephen Fry I encountered at the first DNA Memorial Lecture at the Royal Institution in 2003. Fry was Master of Ceremonies for Richard Dawkins‘s lecture ‘Queerer Than We Can Suppose‘. And no, this wasn’t a homage to Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid, but rather a celebration of the memory of the irreplaceable Douglas Noel Adams, patron to the beneficiaries of the evening – The Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and Save the Rhino International.

Fry’s comments during the various introductions, links, and humorous ramblings revealed an impressively knowledgeable and scientifically literate guy, especially in all matters evolutionary. He’d doubtless be shocked that anyone would think otherwise, but this was a world as yet unexposed to the intellectual sound-bitery of the QI show.

The real, not to say surreal, reason I remember this all so well is the charity auction at the end of the evening. With Fry as auctioneer, I found myself bidding head-to-head with Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) for a two foot high, ceramic, silver-backed gorilla (as you do). Suffice to say the wrong Jones walked off with the pottery primate – leaving me apeless (sorry).


Also of Interest

“Douglas Adams loved ideas but hated writing, says Terry Jones”  March 2012 BBC article HERE


Reverend Reiss Causes Stir At Science Festival

Two real hoo-hahs have gone down in the world of UK science this week. At the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool, the Director of Education at the Royal Society, Rev.Prof.Michael Reiss, appeared to support at least some discussion of creationism in school science classes. At the same festival, embryologist and TV science star Robert Winston stirred up journalists and festies alike with further criticism of what he sees as the irresponsible behaviour of the super-atheist clan (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al). This post relates to the Reiss storm; here is a podcast featuring Reiss that accompanied his entry on the Guardian Science Blog on 11th September, and Reiss’s pre-presentation press brief from the BA.


Reiss’s comments are surprising and, given his position and the ammunition he is handing to less moderate interests, politically puzzling. The arguments for and against debate of non-scientific, non-evidence-based, and logic-deficient world views in school science classes have been done to death (the comments on Reiss’s statement on the Guardian Science Blog say it all).

My personal stance is that it is important in schools to explicitly state what science is not, as well as what it is. Science is not a methodology for analysing non-evidence-based beliefs, which includes most religious beliefs as self defined. It is a separate issue if a student wants to argue a religion is evidence based; that’s a good discussion topic for the religious studies class. There would be less angst all round if boundaries, rules, and definitions were more clearly defined in this way.

It is the duty of the educational authority (in the broadest sense of the term, but here including Michael Reiss) to agree the ground rules, and to instruct and enable teachers to relay them to children at the start of term. It boils down to making sure kids know up front what science is and what it is not.

There are two reasons this has not happened. First, the authority setting the rules is itself confused over what science is; and second, there is political comfort in maintaining that ambiguity in an atmosphere where the setting of any boundary is seen as an implied attack on anything lying outside it. The first weakness may be countered with a relentless appeal to reason, defense of the scientific method, and political lobby. The second requires political courage from our leaders, faced with the inescapable truth that the intellectually honest position, without vindictive or malicious intent, will be painful to some.

Related Articles on the Present Topic

Royal Society Press Release

Steve Connor and Archie Bland at the Independent

Robin McKie at the Guardian and again here

Rod Liddle at the Times

Tom Whipple at the Times 18/9

Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Other Articles

Guardian interview with Reiss in 2006