Friday, July 20, 2012

How to "downplay the achievements of science"

An opinion piece by Joe Humphreys, assistant news editor of the Irish Times has caused a bit of a stir amongst those in the science and humanities spheres over the last few days.

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.


Joe Humphreys July 23, 2012 at 4:21 PM  

Thanks Eoin for your very measured response. Rather than going through each point you make individually (I feel like I’ve addressed the substantive issues you make around writing style and language in numerous postings online, and I would be forever trying to correct what I see as erroneous interpretations of my words), I hope you don’t mind if I have one last shot at expressing myself, using – in a spirit of goodwill- what might be described as a more scientific framework*:

(1) Values are important.

(2) The decline of religion and the rise of science has changed the debate about values but not in a satisfactory way.

(3) There is something to be said for greater discussion of values and morality that, while cognisant of science, is not constrained by what is known or thought knowable.

(4) While it's not the particular responsibility of scientists, I would like to see them engage in that debate notwithstanding their professional attachment to the scientific method.

(5) The influence of scientific discovery on cultural values is underappreciated and should form part of that debate.

(6) There seems to be an imbalance between the language and tools we have developed to discuss science and to discuss values.

(7) I sat at ESOF2012 wishing we had the same for a discussion on values and meaning.

(8) Perhaps that would be even more important; particularly right now.

Now, imagine I am one of 1,000 monkeys on 1,000 typewriters trying to develop these, not uncomplicated points, with a brief of keeping it to 900 words for a grown-up, newspaper audience. The product was last Tuesday’s article.

(* With special thanks to the promptings of my scientist/economist brother Frank Humphreys)

On a personal note, I've got a lot from the debate so far, including very interesting philosophical and scientific references. I do find it ironic that so many contributors (I stress I’m not including you in this) called for me to apologise or to be punished for the article, given the way scientists and other thinkers have been silenced down the years on grounds of "causing offence". I for one won't allow any “scientific” boot boys diminish my interest in science, nor my sense of wonder at human understanding and its limits.

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