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October 09, 2006

Civilisation and Science: Marc Sidwell argues that Oxford's new James Martin Institute has got them the wrong way round

Posted by Marc Sidwell

Wealthy technology guru James Martin has just published a book calling for more scientific "collective wisdom" in the world - The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future. He has also funded a new institute at Oxford University - the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization - which will "address the big issues of science, technology and environment that will be decisive in shaping the world's civilizations in the 21st Century". Appearing on Start the Week (2nd October 2006), James Martin advocated an upper house for the globe to be staffed by scientists. Here Marc Sidwell explains why he believes this to be a terrible idea and why we should not be ruled by scientists.

James Martin predicted the rise of the internet and cellular telephones. He is very rich. On the back of these two qualifications, he has written a book calling for more scientific "collective wisdom" in the world and endowed the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at Oxford University. This "Science and Civilization" Institute will investigate the problems he sees in our future. Its symposium will become a world forum (perhaps explaining the American orthography). Its teaching programme will train future generations of world leaders, apparently.

The trouble is, just because you are a technology guru and very rich doesn't make you right.

James Martin seems to have a rather aristocratic view of the world. On Start the Week he advocated an upper house for the globe to be staffed by scientists. He seems to think this the only way to rule our foolish mob with sufficient wisdom in the difficult times ahead. Remarkably, Andrew Marr and guests thought this all very intriguing. But perhaps the prospect of scientific world tyranny appeals to the modern technocratic establishment. They would doubtless relish the managed transition from this unjustified franchise to the rule of expertise, since their children would be playing the experts.

Here's one argument why they should think again. Even if you believe in the wisdom of sub-letting your (and my) life choices to a one-world panel, why on earth would you want them to be staffed by scientists?

This error - that to train our modern leaders, they need an education centred on science - is nothing new. T. H. Huxley said something similar towards the end of the nineteenth century. C. P. Snow used his notorious "Two Cultures" lecture to offer the same analysis in 1959. The idea first came into play as early as the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. Consistently rejected in favour of the liberal education tradition, a science-based education has never seemed a good idea for long. Its return to prominence now is only a consequence of the loss of the liberal alternative.

Why not train our children through science? Because we know what scientists are like. Different careers all bring their déformation professionelle: the scholar's pedantry; the clerk's calloused hand; the sportsman's braggadocio. Following the scientific disciplines tends to turn human beings into geeks. Consider the new dwarf planet causing trouble in the heavens: Eris. Its discoverers, who have the right to name the body, first called it Xena, after trash-TV's warrior princess, something they announced they had "always wanted" to do. Required to choose the name of a real mythological figure, they settled on Eris, goddess of discord. This was still a recondite geek-pun, for the actress who played Xena is Lucy Lawless. Lawless=Discord=Eris.

Do you really want to be ruled by people who think that funny? Take another case: Google Book Search. Google is engaged in a project to digitise the contents of many of the world's great libraries. One of their team recently suggested to George Dyson that:

We are not scanning all those books to be read by people; we are scanning them to be read by an Artificial Intelligence.
Do you really want a geek providing the reading list for a world-spanning AI? They will start with Asimov's Foundation series, a source of inspiration for Al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, and then waste its time memorising back-issues of The X-Men.

Now you may think that I am just picking my cases, so let us turn to general principles. Science is useful because it provides robust, counter-intuitive predictions about the behaviour of the world. It does so by abstracting from specific events toward theoretical principles and by testing and re-resting those principles under scrupulous conditions. It requires, then, a capacity for repetitive yet careful work bordering on the obsessive, the ability to ignore the actual in favour of the abstract and an effective bypass on common sense. We should not be surprised if the likely consequences are a certain stifling of natural humanity in the scientist. The person who can look at a baby and see an ideal experimental subject or who can happily watch pitch in a funnel (it forms a drop every ten years) is in important ways distanced from humane perceptions.

Have I gone too far? Will there be a march of angry lab-workers (or perhaps just a Star-Wars-themed, scurrilous wiki)? Think of Darwin. None can doubt the quality of his work. None can question what it cost him. He admitted in his Autobiography that having loved Milton and Shakespeare as a boy, by the end of his life the only novels he could read with any pleasure were trashy romances. Just as I suggest, he found that:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.
He certainly did not think that his scientific mindset had been the best preparation for a fully-rounded character:
[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Behold the scientific man. Even when Darwin sees the answer he makes it sound like a course of suppositories. For a more bracing appreciation of the value of the humanities to those who would play a central role in public life, I can recommend no better guide than Cicero's Pro Archia.

Cicero did not know so much about the rudimentary fifth stamen of the antirrhinum as Darwin, but he was wiser, and a much better leader. James Martin has missed the point. Our leaders need a liberal education, in which a grasp of mathematics and science has always been important, but never central. For at the centre of education is a vision of humankind, in all our dignity, power and weakness. Science is a tool, not our master.

Marc Sidwell is a freelance writer and a member of the organising committee for the Henry Jackson Society. He is currently working on an anthology of British writing in liberal education.


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