There is an old joke about being able to tell an extroverted scientist: instead of staring at their shoes when they talk to you, they stare at yours. This is no longer true. Scientists are the new rock stars. Tonight Einstein gets the full soft-focus Crown-style treatment as National Geographic launches a 10-part series about the man described by hte actor Geoffrey Rush, who portrays him in Genius, as a “stud-muffin theoretical physicist”.
The scientist as hero is familiar enough. What’s less familiar is scientists demonstrating, thousands of them around the world, with placards and banners declaring “Science improves decisions” and other inflammatory assertions, such as “Science belongs to no country because knowledge belongs to humanity”. “Evidence not arrogance,” they demanded.
But you don’t have to be anti-science to see that there is an inevitability about its difficult relationship with politics. It is the point where knowledge and belief collide, which is why it is now the crucible of the culture wars.
Scientists can’t but be the villains of the Brexit narrative. They are highly educated in the ultimate transferrable skills. They are the quintessential citizens of the world, people who keep their passports in their back pockets, and often work not just in towns where they were not born but in countries their parents never imagined visiting. They might dream of a Nobel prize, but they may also have an eye on a job in Silicon Valley. Intellectual property is the new alchemy.
More challenging than their lifestyles, however, is their insistence on the sanctity of evidence and the importance of making decisions based on established fact. Expert-deniers trade on the natural resistance to uncomfortable truth by asserting that the truth is a negotiable quality. Donald Trump thinks windfarms are bad for your health, and low-energy lightbulbs give you cancer. He has linked childhood immunisation with autism. Although he tweeted yesterday that “rigorous science is critical to my administration”, he has yet to appoint a scientific policy adviser.
In one way, this is an argument that was already well rehearsed when Pope Paul V took on Galileo 400 years ago. Science and belief have always rubbed up against each other. They find compromise positions. Popes die. In the end, science emerges victorious.
Yet there are differences. Trump is not arguing from some alternative, God-centred perspective. He is not defending a belief system subscribed to by most of the known world. He just doesn’t like facts that contradict what he wants to say. The expert-deniers rest their case on experts sometimes being wrong. They refuse to recognise that to know something properly, it must be capable of being proved wrong. If it is, that in fact constitutes the advancement of knowledge.
There is another reason science is at the heart of this argument. Scientists are all very well when they are discovering penicillin and working out how to transfer great quantities of data instantaneously. Science is good when it makes life longer, easier, richer and more comfortable and convenient. It is also wonderful when it is makes discoveries concerning the metabolism of naked mole rats, or negative-mass fluids – mind-boggling discoveries that are basically irrelevant to most people’s lives.
It is a harder sell when it points to unacceptable realities. It’s disagreeable to stop smoking or to drink less alcohol or to avoid sugary drinks. The people who make cigarettes, booze and fizzy drinks are often unscrupulous in defence of their products and their profits. Accepting that our way of life threatens the sustainability of the planet was never going to be easy. Donald Trump is not a new version of a 17th-century pope, but there are millions of US voters who believe he can preserve their world: a world that depends on coal and cars.
There was plenty to admire about the scientists’ protest. But it’s increasingly clear that their greatest skill – unearthing the truth – is not enough to win a culture war.