2009 looks set to be an exciting year for science: 12th February sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and we've already had the Richard Dawkins-endorsed Atheist Bus Campaign, with its catchy slogan 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'.
Now, as much as I think that these adverts are an interesting addition to the debate, I also loathe Richard Dawkins. And I'm certainly not one to let reason stand in the way of personal prejudice. What annoys me so much aside from his ill-informed intervention into the Sokal Affair is that he seems even more dogmatic and less open to alternate ideas than your average rabid evangelical loon.
For Dawkins, science is a system that provides all the answers. There is no room for doubt. Well I don't think it is, and in search of scientists to agree with me, I decide to attend the promisingly entitled lecture 'What Science Can't Tell Us' at the ICA.
The evening is chaired by Vivienne Parry, that one who used to be on Tomorrow's World, and features Michael Brooks, New Scientist consultant and author of 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, and maverick scientist (no it's not an oxymoron) Rupert Sheldrake.
The evening takes in all manner of topics that scientists have been unable to prove or disprove one way or the other. There's the ongoing enigma of homeopathy, the fact that we still haven't been able to distinguish rigorously between what's dead and what's alive, the gaps in our knowledge of developmental biology (DNA does not explain all, Dawko) and the issue of dark matter and dark energy, which have been 'known' about since 1935, but we're still yet to see any. I personally think that they are both just part of an ingenious invention to cover up the fact that science has got its sums wrong. But what do I know...
These are all more or less interesting, but the evening really takes off when we get on to the subject of the scientific institution itself. Sheldrake has been largely shunned by the scientific community for his research into seemingly unscientific areas whether pets are indeed telepathic, for example. He describes himself as 'something of a feral scientist' and laments that 'institutional science is stultified, dogmatic and cramped by the grants system'. Sheldrake cites the work carried out by Richard Wiseman by way of example: Wiseman carried out the same experiments as Sheldrake did for his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and - according to Sheldrake at least - got the same results. But because they contradicted his existing beliefs he refused to acknowledge them.*
This, according to Sheldrake, is 'pathological science' and there is a lot of it about. It is, he says for example, 'hard to encounter somebody as dogmatic as Richard Dawkins'. If Darwin is a kind of Marx figure, then Dawkins is comparable in some ways to Stalin: he is 'an extreme fanatical dogmatist'. Just as Marx was clearly not a Stalinist so 'the real Darwin was not a neo-Darwinist'.
What this lecture reveals is that, as much as Dawkins and the institution would like to suggest otherwise, the scientific community is just like any other: it has its own rifts, agendas, schisms and personalities. Science is not homogenous, nor should it be. 'Science does not equal institutional science', Sheldrake says. It is the institutionalisation and homogenisation of science (as epitomised by Dawkins) that attempts to impose an ideological hegemony.
At this point, a member of the audience, losing patience with the squabbling about the scientific institution, asks 'Please can you just explain What Science Can't Tell Us?' to which Brooks replies:
'The truth. Science can only answer the questions that we ask of nature. Scientists need to be a bit more skeptical about their own findings, they need to be a bit more circumspect about what they actually do. Science is not the ultimate arbiter of truth.'