Standing up for science

A new collection of essays puts the case for a fresh scientific enlightenment to counter the rise of superstition.

Science vs Superstition: The Case for a New Scientific Enlightenment, edited by Jim Panton and Oliver Marc Hartwich, Policy Exchange, 2006.

This collection of essays from the British think tank Policy Exchange is an excellent defence of scientific inquiry in all of the major policy debates, and it should be on every A-level student’s reading list.

Pain specialist Stuart Derbyshire takes time out of his research in Birmingham to investigate the history of the new ethics committees that have sprung up to regulate scientific research. It is a valuable detour, showing how a handful of extreme cases were made into an argument for making research decisions on non-scientific grounds.

Similarly, Joe Kaplinsky’s re-capping of the history of nuclear power shows how an unrealistic preoccupation with unconstrained risks has led to daft decisions favouring energy sources that are responsible for many, many more deaths, like coal-mining. Particularly useful is Kaplinsky’s explanation of how Greenpeace managed to massage the statistics to discover 200,000 deaths due to the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor, when in truth there were 50.

German ecological writers Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch put the questioning of scientific inquiry in the context of a romantic protest against development. At a time when the liberal press only seems interested in the American conservative reaction against stem-cell research, it is interesting to note that in Germany – as Thilo Spahl and Thomas Deichmann explain – the case against stem-cell research is not premised on God’s plan but on fears of a new eugenics. They criticise the new fashion for talking of ‘embryonic persons’, instead of fetuses, as a demotion of women’s rights.

On a more general plane, the Dutch policy analysts Jaap C Hanekamp and Wybren Verstegen write a critique of the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ under which any and all potential risks must be weighed up before research is undertaken. As they explain, this makes science impossible. It is an argument that runs through science writer Matt Ridley’s level-headed account of the advantages of genetic engineering.

The Policy Exchange’s own enterprising polymath and co-editor Oliver Marc Hartwich rounds off the book with a valuable explanation of the science of climate change, showing the difference between the science and its interpretation. His is particularly useful for showing that the interpretations of the effects of climate change are far from agreed by all, and mostly based on some speculative mathematical modelling. Consensus, he says, is a concept at odds with science, which is inherently sceptical to all its provisional findings.

In the introduction to the book, co-editor Jim Panton outlines the problems with the rise of superstition over science, and in a later chapter on vivisection he argues that political and scientific authorities must not be afraid to defend animal research, in view of its immense benefits for mankind. This book shows that some people are still ready and willing to stand up for science.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. Science vs Superstition is available from the Policy Exchange website here.

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