There’s more to science than ridiculing fools

The science-led campaign against TV psychic Sally Morgan has the whiff of a modern-day witch hunt.

David Perks

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Topics Science & Tech

The undead have acquired a near-ubiquitous presence on cinema screens and video consoles. Zombie movies are now so prevalent that Winchester University recently held a Zombosium conference and will soon be starting a Zombie Studies course. On Halloween, I did think that rational adults would have just ignored the morbid curiosity young people have with ghosts and vampires and perhaps concentrate on real life. I was wrong.

Instead, there seems to be a crusade against those who purport to communicate with the undead and spirits. For instance, Simon Singh, author of Fermat’s Last Theorem and other books aimed at engaging the reader with science, challenged Sally Morgan, renowned psychic and performer of feats of supernatural communication, to a scientific test. Singh’s challenge to Morgan was to link seven out of 10 pictures of dead women with their names. She refused and an exchange of legal letters ensued. Morgan’s lawyers threatened to sue Singh for libel. He published the contents of the letters on his blog and went ahead with the event, which was hosted by the Mersey Skeptics on Halloween night. Unsurprisingly, Morgan did not show up. Singh has said he wants to make this an annual event.

From Singh’s point of view, Morgan’s threat to resort to libel action to protect her from being debunked in public is just proof of her fake status and justification of his crusade to uncover quackery wherever he chooses to look. Now, it is true that using libel to silence your critics is a cheap trick that the English legal system affords those with money over those without. Free speech should be an inalienable right. That means individuals should be free to debunk charlatans. But it also means you should be free to put forward bizarre and unfounded ideas if you so choose. It should be for the court of public opinion to decide which case stands up to scrutiny.

The almost absurd pursuit of Morgan reminds me of the famous Monty Python sketch. How can you tell a witch? If they float they are made of wood and must be a witch. So burn them. But why look for witches in the first place? Morgan and her ilk abound in society and have done so since before science made its mark. What are we frightened of? And why are seemingly serious scientists spending so much time exposing charlatans?

Writing on his Telegraph blog, Tom Chivers argued that people like Morgan are either ‘confused’ or ‘they’re cynically taking advantage of other people’s pain and vulnerability’. But ordinary people are being portrayed in this battle as nothing more than victims, while science writers are presented as heroic crusaders. In other words, we schmucks need protecting from the irrational by scientists like Singh who expose the dangerous ideas that pervade our society.

Ben Goldacre, through his ‘Bad Science’ blog, Guardian column and book, offers another version of this approach. He has focused on exposing the shoddy use of science to support erroneous claims made by various antagonists. This has become popular with the liberal intelligentsia, but it leaves me wondering whether what Goldacre is really connecting with is not so much a desire to understand and promote science but rather the idea that there are smart, educated people – Us – who are clever enough to see through the ‘bad science’ served up to delude less able people – Them. Most people, it seems, are just not clever enough to understand science and get taken in.

Singh and Goldacre aren’t alone; the ‘war against bad science’ is now official policy. When John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, proclaimed that we need to be ‘grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method’, he was formalising a new relationship between science and the public. Scientists now have a duty to expose ‘bad science’ wherever it exists and attack it. But this confirms that science can no longer convince the public of its worth by engaging in a dialogue about how we can best use science for progress. Instead, scientists have given up on the public and are now seeking to give themselves credibility in public policy debates by seeking out pantomime enemies of reason. This is very dangerous ground upon which to tread.

The enthusiasm with which Goldacre, Singh and others are launching into soft targets belies an intolerance of other opinions that is easily translated into far more important battles. For example, what about the notion of sceptics within the scientific community who question the orthodoxy of public policy on climate change? Already, Singh has tried to take on alternative-medicine practitioners. He risks wasting the residual trust people have in science on stalking bogeymen that just don’t matter. The future of science has to be tied to the future of society. What we need is a positive vision for both or we will see scientists like Singh offer nothing but cold comfort in an uncertain age.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London and has just launched a campaign for a new Free School called the East London Science School, which aims to open in September 2013. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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