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The Other: Science as enemy

February 12, 2010

Anti-intellectualism has sorely troubled me. I look for root causes, principles, forces at work, in order to try to understand what really propels us. For a long time, I have failed to identify what makes so many of us afraid of the intelligence of others.

Sometimes answers are found in unexpectedly familiar places. We all know how the mob loves a demon. Demagogues have always exploited our fears in this way, but in order to do so they need to nominate a candidate, a scapegoat, a group or faction that can easily be seen, identified, caricatured or parodied, mocked or vilified. Skin colour is helpful in this respect, since a man with different colour skin requires no interrogation, no artful exposure. Here is a man with black skin. He is therefore the other. Easy for the mob, since thinking isn’t required. Same with language. He talks funny, therefore he is different. He is foreign: the perfect embodiment of our fears. (Handy too when they can’t speak our language – saves a lot of time having to listen futile defences when denying they are different is clearly pointless).

Some other demons demand a bit more work before they can be satisfactorily burned, drowned, marginalised or excommunicated. Religion is not worn on the sleeve, doesn’t reveal itself to the naked eye. This difficulty is overcome with a variety of methods, nearly all of which involve torture: the inquisition was just another variant of techniques developed in the ancient world. It is handy that skin colour, ethnicity, dress and religion can so easily be conflated, because this is a time-saver when it comes to disenfranchising, for example, Muslims.

Political affiliations are the most difficult on which to shine the light of systematic alienation. McCarthy had a good stab at it, Stalin made a fine job of murdering 25 million people because of it, but the collateral damage is always considerable. Some make it easy, wearing their ostracism with pride, enjoying their sense of exclusion in the manner of Groucho Marx, in that they wouldn’t want to be part of any society that would have them as a member. But in all, the easiest way to spot the political dissident is through careful and close surveillance of each other: there is something particularly depressing about the effectiveness of the Stasi, a grass roots network of venal informers forever peeping between the curtains of their prejudice.

All the characterisations of anxiety I have outlined still exist, still prevail to some extent, the scale and transparency dependent on culture and geography. I think it is also true that these demonizations, these ‘others’, are timeless. They can be found throughout history, a consistent set of targets. This may not be the case with intelligence. In European history before the middle ages, there was little insidious challenge by the intelligentsia to the authority of hereditary rulers, be they dynastic, hereditary, representatives of the divine or figureheads of military authority. When I talk about insidious, I mean religion. Before the advent of Christianity as a political force, the only challenge for power was through warfare between tribes, states or nations, or revolt from within – uprisings, assassinations and the like. Consequently, intelligence could rarely be a threat to power; instead, it was a complement to it. Intelligence was fostered and revered, for the learning, for the analysis, for the wisdom and foresight, for weapons and machines of war, for civic improvement, to accomplish grandiose schemes and monuments that glorified the sponsors.

When organised, trans-national religion transcended its spiritual remit and started to acquire political leverage, the role of intelligence changed. It could still be harnessed in the service of the church, but the enquiring mind cannot be constrained only to the approved channels of enquiry. It is the nature of intelligence to question temporal authority because its basis relies on a fundamental acceptance of doctrine. The enquiring mind cannot help but enquire after the validity of such authority. By making such enquiries, there must be an inevitable backlash, where authority is used in an attempt to limit intelligence, to persuade, cajole or force intelligence to obey the limits set by theocracies. The very nature of theocratic power comes from unquestioning obedience, complicity and submission – exactly as Christianity teaches in the guise of religious coherence – but these strictures are anathema to the enquiring mind.

So a power struggle begins, somewhat on mistaken grounds. Intellectuals seek the freedom to ask any question that occurs. Religion seeks to proscribe that freedom, allowing only lines of enquiry it considers no threat to the established doctrine. Yet the intelligent do not question doctrine in order to undermine it – not at first perhaps – merely to understand what is real and what is expedient, where authority lies, and where it is aggregated under pretences that, to an intellectual, seem false. And when the enquiry engages the most contentious subject of all – the nature and existence of God – the response is the brutal intimidation and punishment of Inquisition.

Now the powerful are caught in a mighty paradox. They constantly seek the inventiveness of the intelligent, while simultaneously being afraid of the power of the restless mind, not for the threat they can identify, but the threat they cannot. It isn’t possible to predict the course intelligence will follow – that’s one of its most intriguing attributes – but since the course is unknown, any putative destination can create anxiety sufficient to induce condemnation and persecution even as the intelligent make great and meaningful contributions. This is the war between religion and science, where science becomes ‘the other’ and intelligence its agent of subversion.

Science is unique as a symbol of our fears, because in all other cases, it is people that suffer for their cause. Science gives us something else, something abstract in which to invest our channelled hatred: books – the symbol of knowledge, of intelligence. Book burning (or scroll burning) is a favourite pastime of the mob. It isn’t illegal, and the only moral condemnation comes from those who either read or write books, which merely demonstrates guilt by association; objectors are guilty of being intelligent by dint of their objections. Everything the mob detests (and usually doesn’t understand) originates with intelligent people: military strategy, political or economic theories, science, ideologies, philosophies, art, culture, even cuisine – the best of what man does requires intelligence to appreciate, so therefore it is easy to bundle the best of what we do or think, and consign it to one elitist slough of indulgence and irrelevance, a province occupied by those who are automatically excluded from joining the mob because they know too much.

This is, for example, how China came to estrange its entire intelligentsia in a ‘cultural revolution’, setting them to work in the fields in order to bring them down to the same level as everyone else. There is an assumption of arrogance, but this is akin to what therapists call projection: the mob, given the opportunity, can easily imagine themselves being arrogant were they suitably gifted, so it isn’t unreasonable for them to assume this character must be implicit amongst those who are suitably endowed. Mob logic, if one could call it that, which when applied produces the kind of pyrrhic victory the Chinese enjoyed when they discovered they had nobody left with the brains to run the country, educate the people or plan for the future.

Science then is an ideal candidate for the nu-Other. We live in a world moving so fast we struggle to keep up. A world in which benefits and disadvantages are visited on us so quickly we are always reactive, rarely proactive. A world comprised of nations and economies so inextricably woven together in the name of profit that no government really runs its own country any more. A world where some people are so angry they blow up other people even as they blow up themselves. A world in which many people starve while others inflict obesity on themselves and their offspring. A world of polarised opinion, of violence and deceit, where no leaders can be trusted. A world running out of energy and threatening the very climate of the planet as we do so.

In this world, in this age of anxiety, we need a really big demon in which to invest our incomprehension. A race or religion simply isn’t good enough. We need to blame something vast, something global, something nobody can understand (the concomitant fear of which makes it all the more potent), something we can all get our teeth into like intellectual cannibals. Science and the intelligence that drives it is the perfect ‘other’ of our time. The more we fear it, the more we despise and denigrate it, persecute its practitioners and demean their findings, the happier we will feel.

That’s the theory, anyway.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. markhb permalink
    February 12, 2010 10:41 pm

    mmm….science is surely only a temporary enemy for the disaffected; in the end rationality must prevail. My own feeling is that the very dispassionate nature of science is part of the problem here. The objections to GM food, with with which I empathise, tend to demonise science, (frankenfoods) but in reality it is the corporate ownership, direction & (mis)use of science which is to blame. With the MMR scandal, many including me instinctively distrusted the profit motive of the corporate manufacturers and the cost saving nature of 3in1 injections and believed this was a motivator for covering up the truth. What does the science tell us about nuclear energy? That it is “safe”. Yet many of us are sceptical. In the case of climate change many deniers seem to see science as the stalking horse for socialism. That is why they deny the evidence so vehemently.

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    February 13, 2010 8:02 am

    Hi Mark.
    Well, first I must own up to the fact that when writing such broad overviews, the details are lacking. The points you make are much more nuanced than I would attempt in a piece like this – my essays at http://www.gpwayne.com try to build a more considered analysis, where the space allows such nuance to be explored.

    So it is true that many fears have their origins in science, and again, at that interface between science and society, there is plenty of room for deceit. But science doesn’t tell us only one thing. You mention nuclear, and it is true that some scientists tell us it is safe. But isn’t it also the case that other scientists tell us it isn’t? Same with all the examples you quote – science and epidemiology provide both sides of the argument, and behind the public utterances we will find vested interests whose probity often seems to bear an inverse proportionality to the amound of potential profit involved. This, I think, is what makes it so hard for us to figure out what is true, what isn’t, and what lies in the vast grey area between.

    ‘In the end, rationality must prevail’.

    Mark, I so wish this were true, or could be. I have studied history to some modest extent, and given our past form I find it hard to believe we will now overcome our traditional tendancy to allow our fears to overcome us. It strikes me forcefully how the views of much of the world appear little different, or better informed, than when most of us were tilling the soil. Indeed, much of the world is still tilling the soil. For rationality to prevail, societies must comprise more individuals guided by reason than not. Even in the west, despite the appearance of being educated, it is hard sometimes to accept that our education is anything more than a cheap trick to fit us neatly into the commercial paradigm that funds education and sets its curriculum.

  3. markhb permalink
    February 13, 2010 10:09 pm

    Good answer Graham. I still till the soil quite a bit myself. The sum of human knowledge is increasing all the time. However the question of whether humanity has engineered genuine progress for itself and the planet is hopefully still open for discussion at least. Once we start giving more weight to GPIs (Genuine Progress Indicators) and how to weight them, – rather than GDP, then we can start to consider the matter properly.My own feeling is that governments will reach a tipping point on that that when GDP growth starts to become unattainable. I notice Cameron talks about it occasionally, though he will of course dump it as soon as he gets in power.
    One of the issues of course is to convince people that “less is more”, and that is always a hard sell, but it could be the defining “sell” of our time. Eat less, reproduce less, consume less, dominate others less, fight less.
    I digress, but i admit to hope, which is one of my dominant themes!
    If you recall the myth; hope was the one tiny balancing consolation to be released from Pandoras box.
    Question; if you look at the sweep of human history across the world, do you detect more individuals guided by rationality now than say 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years ago?
    Of course if one only looks at the impact of ever increasing humanity on the planet & its ecosystems over that period then the impact has been negative.
    Mainly due to our species success in self replication and life extension.
    However it is surely not “entirely rational” to see humanity as the climax evolutionary achievement of the earth. If we were sufficiently ambitious, then we could make that be our goal. To live sustainably in harmony & balance with the other life forms on earth is surely our most rational endeavor?.
    My sense is that it is becoming shared by more and more people, although the world is also becoming in many ways more polarised. A paradox.

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    February 16, 2010 2:41 pm

    Less is more: what measurement system are we using? Your list of things we could do with less of if commendable, but what do we need more of? If we could convince people that what they need more of is spiritual wealth, happiness, engagement, self-respect – I’m not going to flog a dead list here but you get the idea – then the argument becomes like that of climate change: don’t sell the idea on what we have to relinquish, sell it on the basis of what we gain. To ask people to give things up is, as you suggest, a tough sell. To ask people to swap things that don’t necessarily make them happy for things that do, have a value beyond money or status, and in most cases that cannot be taken from us – surely this is an easier argument to put forward.

    As I see it, many people have forgotten what means most to us, what is durable and sustaining. This is, I think, a facet of consumerism where we measure ourselves against what we own. If we stopped doing this, many of our problems would be easier to resolve.

    Your question – are more people guided by rationality now than in the past – is a good one. I would say that given the growth of the global population, the relationship between religion, poverty, ignorance, violence and fear, there are more people now than ever before for whom rationality is a quality denied them. It’s easy to point at the developing nations and suggest that this is where rationality is a minority attribute, but if you look at the US, there is a remarkable similarity between fundamentalist American thought and that of fundamentalist Islamic doctrine and attitudes. I ascribe this phenomenon to the nature of education, which is not designed to make us free and rational. Quite the contrary – it seeks to fit us to the machinery of industrialisation and consumerism, defining the scope of our education by the dictates of commerce, of work and subservience to the capitalist paradigm.

    Are we, collectively, better informed and more rational now? I don’t believe we are. I think we fool ourselves because so much information is available to us, but knowing how to use Google isn’t the same as understanding what it finds for us.

  5. February 22, 2010 5:03 am

    I like that :), (at least the bits I could make out easily). I am afflicted with color blindness (tritanopia to be precise). I use Chrome browser (unsure if that is of any importance), and a lot of your webpage is tricky for me to make out. I know it is my problem to deal with, in truth, but it would be cool if you would bear in mind the color blind whilst carrying out your next web page design.

  6. gpwayne permalink*
    February 22, 2010 2:42 pm

    Hi Brakey – sorry your post didn’t appear straight away. Seems the WordPress engine thought it might be spam.

    As for the colour issue, I regret that you’re having problems, but I didn’t do the design, just used a WordPress template. Since text is usually presented in black on a white background, I’m not sure what I could do to assist.

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