The essay, entitled Scientists not giving human life its meaning, was published on Tuesday and seemed (at least by my interpretation) to attack science as a process which sees people as "just means to an end".
Perhaps the most surprising element of the essay was Humphreys wishing "good riddance to ESOF 2012". Indeed, that may well have been a major factor in the strong disapproval amongst scientists. Here we had a hugely successful conference. A conference which was the highlight of the European science year and which put the worldwide spotlight on Irish science like never before. Despite this, and despite the Irish Times' excellent coverage of the conference, you had a writer poking holes in the conference and science itself out of some sort of misguided sense of striking a balance.
The author himself confesses that his article was "a deliberate, and I thought fairly transparent, counterbalancing exercise in the context of a week-long coverage of ESOF2012".
Reading the piece again, I genuinely get the impression that the author was struggling to find fault with the conference. Was there an editorial meeting at which it was decided: 'Look, all these smiling scientists, pop stars and balloons is all well and good, but we really need to strike some sort of balance here. Anybody got a beef with science?'
My own major problem with the essay, and Humphreys subsequent attempt to explain it, is something that I have noticed more and more in recent times. It is an attempt, consciously or not, to paint a picture of a scientist as somewhat removed from the rest of human society; as some amoral, unethical, faithless "wise man".
I'm a scientist and I would certainly never argue, as Humphreys suggests I might, that "there is no meaning to life" or that "talking about meaning debases science". As a scientist and a human, I also struggle to make the sort of moral, ethical, religious and scientific decisions Humphreys refers to.
At this point, I'm reminded of the controversy surrounding an article by Tony Humphreys (I presume, no relation to Joe) in the Irish Examiner earlier this year in which the author made some controversial comments on autism. As I argued at the time, that author also tried to paint a picture of scientists and engineers as lacking in "heart qualities" and of being somehow, morally, ethically and emotionally different than the rest of society.
By-the-by, Tony Humphreys' article on autism was offensive and caused offence to a large number of people living with autism and living with people with autism. I'm not trying to equate Joe Humphreys' recent article with it. He has views with which I strongly disagree, but he did not set out to offend anyone and science (and scientists) can argue the toss with the best of them.
I note that colleagues in the humanities have also been disturbed by the content of Humphreys' Irish Times article. It would be unfortunate if this essay contributed to or gave the impression that there was a wide gulf between scientists and those working in the humanities.
As Humphreys noted in his original article: "I studied humanities and feel more at home in that camp and am therefore prone to downplaying the achievements of science". What an understatement!
UPDATE (23/07/2012): Thanks to Joe Humphreys who has taken the time to respond to this (and other) criticism of his article. You can read Joe's response in the comments section of this post.