“When I am in the company of scientists,” observed the poet W. H. Auden, “I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room of dukes.”
Auden’s view is an uncommon one nowadays, where scientists are more likely to be perceived as socially-challenged geeks than masters of the universe, but he was writing in the 1950s – a time when the impact of technology was viewed in a more benign fashion. Antibiotics were curing disease, humans were venturing into space, and plastics were revolutionising consumer products. It was a time of giddy optimism as a war-weary world looked to the future with a sense of exhilaration and promise. Scientists were the harbingers, the midwives, of a new age.
Somewhere along the line that got lost. Was it Eisenhower predicting the military-industrial complex in 1961, with scientists the stooges of warmongering capitalists? Was it the spectre of nuclear war, with scientists the producers of weapons more horrific than any the world has yet seen? Or was it the advent of mass media, when becoming an actor, a guitarist, or a footballer suddenly seemed more glamorous than probing nature’s infinite book of secrecy? Whatever it was, C. P. Snow saw it coming in his “Two Cultures” lecture – and though he seemed overly pessimistic at the time, his prescience now looks spot on.
Even as science’s impact on daily life has inexorably risen, the stock of its practitioners has fallen. Steve Jobs the aesthete is celebrated, while Steve Wozniak the computer engineer is pitied. Michael Crichton made a career out of alarmist tales in which scientists tinker with forces beyond their control (invariably to their dismay).
The odd thing is the extent to which scientists have colluded in their own debasement. They haven’t changed all that much – the traits that Auden recognised are still present. There are the professional ones, such as a grasp of mathematics (and increasingly programming), technical know-how, critical thinking, precision writing, creativity, communication, and clarity of thought. What’s remarkable too is how often those are accompanied by the ability to play musical instruments, excel at sport, juggle, draw, and much else besides. One of the most everyday revelations that comes with working in a laboratory is suddenly finding out what remarkable activities your colleagues get up to in their spare time, often without publicising it.
But these are dukes that are all too often ashamed of themselves. Scientists may well be unfairly lampooned, but there’s no need to join in, and it’s striking how little self-esteem one finds amongst young scientists today. At the global march for science events that took place on April 22nd, it was noticeable how often the placards on display exhibited a self-deprecating, self-denigrating humour.
By contrast, scientific illiteracy is not only commonplace, but overt. Worse, anti-intellectualism (witness Michael Gove’s declarations that “the people of this country [the UK] have had enough of experts”) is becoming almost celebrated. And in a world of alternative facts and fake news, where manipulation of social media is both a campaigning tool and a clandestine weapon, it’s Auden’s dukes that are needed most of all. Time for them to remember who they are, and step out of the drawing room.