norman levitt prometheus bedeviled

independent on sunday, 26 august 1999

'Newton!' Griff Rhys-Jones snorts in the TV car ad. 'One apple falls on his head and he thinks he's Einstein'. It nicely sums up the mixture of awe and contempt with which most people view scientists. A few weeks ago the press celebrated details of Einstein's larger than life brain as a symbol of scientific genius. That same week a poll discovered that people were more willing to trust even the food industry than scientists for information about GM crops. This paradox in the public's perception of science lies at the heart of Prometheus Bedeviled. Ignorance about science, Norman Levitt suggests, has led to strained relations between science and society. We can't live without science, yet fear what it is doing to us: from global warming to 'Frankenstein foods', the consequences of science and technology drive us to panic. There is increasing resentment about the 'arrogance' of science, and a desire to cut it down to size. Such alienation, Levitt argues, is disastrous both for science and for society at large.

Levitt, a mathematician from Rutgers University, has long been a pugnacious defender of science against its critics. Five years ago, in Higher Superstition, a book he co-wrote with Paul Gross, Levitt launched a broadside against the 'academic left' for having abandoned its commitment to science and reason, and embraced instead a fashionable postmodern relativism. The book became a key text in the so-called 'science wars' and turned Levitt into a figure of hate among sociologists and historians of science. If anything Levitt's view of 'science studies' has become harsher still. 'Academics who rail or snipe at science', he writes, 'are rather like well-brought up children who made a deliberate decision to misbehave and outrage their elders on some solemn occasion.' But Prometheus Bedeviled is more than simply a critique of such academic theory. Levitt recognises that academic attacks on science are reflections of a more general unease. In his new book, therefore, Levitt takes a broader view of the relationship between science and society in an attempt to understand why science does not possess the social status he believes it deserves.

Science, Levitt argues, is by far the best means we have invented for understanding our world. It is not simply one way of knowing the world, on par with other forms of knowledge. It is the crowning glory of human intellectual endeavour and the only means of obtaining reliable, accurate and objective knowledge about the world around us. The privileged access to truth that science provides should ensure that it has a privileged place in society. Social institutions from schools to law courts to legislatures should prioritise scientific evidence above any other forms of knowledge.

Such a view, Levitt acknowledges, inevitably creates unease and resentment. Much of this is because science is an elitist calling. By this Levitt means two things. First, that only certain individuals have the talent to become good scientists. And second, that science requires hard work, dedication and the pursuit of high standards. But, Levitt claims, we live in a society in which elitism and the pursuit of high standards are constantly denigrated in the name of democracy and pluralism. Intellectual discourse has become coarsened, high culture has prostituted itself in the name of popularity, and there is a general tendency to seek the easiest solution to any problem rather than struggling to achieve real insight. There is more than a touch here of Allan Bloom's complaints in The Closing of the American Mind. Levitt's aim, however, unlike Bloom's, is not to define a conservative agenda but to show how today's 'anything goes' culture is inimical to scientific activity. 'If high culture has frayed and disintegrated, if it has compounded itself inextricably with common dross', he asks, 'why should not science share the same fate?'

Levitt is particularly good in dismantling the arguments of those who wish to 'democratise science'. There is currently a debate in America about the teaching of evolutionary science in schools. Christian fundamentalists demand that the Biblical account of Creation be taught as an equally valid theory of the origins of life. Astonishingly many radicals support them on 'democratic' grounds. What such radicals propose, Levitt points out, 'is not so much the democratisation of science as the supplanting of science by a melange of viewpoints and methods in which populist enthusiasm or even quasi-religious dogma will be anointed with the cultural authority of the "scientific".'

Levitt's is a brilliant polemic, both thought-provoking and entertaining. I am deeply sympathetic to his main arguments about the nature of scientific knowledge and to his claims for a privileged role for science. I also agree that the general 'dumbing down' of society has had a disastrous impact both on science and on people's perceptions of science. Yet for all the lucidity and cogency of Levitt's arguments, there remains a serious weakness in his analysis.

Levitt suggests that there is a fundamental conflict between democracy and science. Most people, he argues, are driven by habits of thoughts that are antithetical to science. 'Public opinion', he writes, 'seems obstinately impermeable to scientific good sense. The fit between the intellectual habits of most laymen and what is required for reliable scientific judgement is depressingly inadequate.' Hence most people will never be able to understand science, and indeed will fear it because of its success. Science, therefore, needs to be 'protected' from the multitude. It must be 'insulated from the impulsiveness of vulgar majoritarianism and populism'.

But insulating science in this fashion can only make worse disquiet about it. Levitt is wrong to suggest that people are suspicious of science because they are ignorant of it. More people have a greater understanding of science today than they did a century ago, and yet the Victorian public more willingly embraced scientific advance. That was largely because there existed then a greater optimistic about the possibilities of human progress in general. We live today in a much more pessimistic age. This has made many people queasy about scientists 'playing God', and has created a sense that the interests of scientists are different from their own. Insulating science in the way that Levitt wants can only make both problems worse.

Levitt overplays the conflict between science and democracy. It is true that, as in the debate about the teaching of evolutionary theory, scientific facts often clash with religious or other prejudices, and that in these cases scientific truth should not give way to irrational dogma, however popular this might be. But one should not infer from this that there is a general conflict between science and democracy. A genuine democracy requires its citizens to have a grasp of the scientific method. A society in which mysticism or irrationality breeds widely cannot be truly democratic. That is why, far from insulating science from democracy, we should seek rather to open democracy to reason and science.