I hold my hands up. I never got science at school. It was a time for bunson burner pranks, high stools at hard benches and the weird dome thing you could give folk electric shocks with. My interest and attention was so lost to it that I never even tried and slid into the brigade of disengaged adolescent disruptors.
But this last year we have all been part of living science, it has brought to the fore the importance of science, what it actually is, why it matters and also why it is so challenged and undermined. One of the things that disappointed me at school was that we repeated experiments that had been done by others. We weren’t discovering anything new.
But this is real new science. We are all part of discovering something new.
The tides, are important to us in coastal communities and back in 1616 the Italian Galileo Galilei proposed a theory of tides arguing that tides were evidence of the motion of the Earth. His discoveries that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system and that the Earth in fact moved around the sun was called heliocentrism. This was radical and outrageous to some. It conflicted with the views of the all powerful Catholic church of the day in a time when the church was the dominant political influence in Europe.
Gallileo’s findings were not simply plucked from the ether but were painstakingly calculated, observed, worked out and tested. He used cutting edge technology of the time, the telescope to do this. The church however was the sole arbiter on official knowledge. Gallileo was found by the Roman Inquisition to be ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’. Heresy being any belief or theory at odds with the established beliefs or customs and usually those of a religious organisation. In Gallileo’s case his views were contrary to the established teachings of Christianity. Gallileo was tried by the inquisition, the ‘secret police’ of the church and found guilty of heresy. He remained under house arrest till his death.
What has Gallileo got to do with science in 2021?
Just about everything. The conflict between faith, truth and power has not receded and we sit right plumb in the middle of it today.
In the 1600s, questioning of the teachings of the church were not undertaken lightly. The inquisition were infamous for their cruelty and torture. On a visit to Cantabria to see the wonderful prehistoric cave paintings of animals and human hands, an affirming proof of early man’s activity and skill, it was an ironic and chilling counterpoint to find in the neighbouring village of Santillana del mar the Museo de la Tortura. This museum is not for the faint hearted, stocked as it is with the evidence of the brutal human capacity for the mind to invent the most horrific contraptions for the exerting the most excruciating pain and suffering on fellow humans. All done in justification as punishment for thinking that was ‘wrong’ or as a means to coerce thinking to change.
Torture remains a means of changing ideas today.
As we sit centre to the emergence of the Covid 19 virus we, as a human life-form on Earth along with all other plants and animals are in the melting pot of evolutionary biology. While our gaze was directed towards the planets for invasions from outer space a virus none of us could see was evolving quietly to perfect its ability to set up home inside our respiratory systems. There it could breed happily and wing around on our breath and into a plenitude of more unsuspecting and comfortable habitats inside humans.
Evolution of this type happens all the time and is usually pretty benign. However the concept of evolution itself is still challenged in particular by some religious organisations. Those that espouse creationist teaching take literally the writings within the bible, one being that the world is six thousand years old. This is an example of science conflicting with belief and would beg me to question who made the cave paintings in Altamira?
Human arrogance is also problematical especially in the rich world. The first world has become comfortable in its belief that humans are and always will be the dominant species on Earth, that they can over- ride nature and bend nature to their own needs. This view is less likely to be prevalent among poorer societies where death and resilience against disease and hunger is much less of a given.
For the cocooned first world, the early days of Covid 19 catapulted the entire world population including us in the rich portion into that primal mindset, of being beset by an unknown, incurable and killer disease.
What then kicked in was (briefly) the mantra that ‘we are all in this together’. Everyone turned to science for human brain power, logistics, manufacturing and mobilisation of a preventative vaccine to rescue us from the horrific threat. And this monumental effort of human agency did just that. Scientists in all their different disciplines collaborated to produce the respite we now have from immediate fear. Crucially the vaccine relied on the rigours of scientific methodology and testing, the painstaking processes that underpin all science and mean relentless time spent in labs. There follows a structure procedure of checking with in the lab and then in the field to get data on which to derive results. In an age without science an all powerful charlatan might produce a potion and convince or coerce us all that it was a cure.
You would hope that everyone would understand we have moved beyond that.
Despite this effort, inevitably poorer countries have fallen behind in their ability to procure and distribute vaccines. Its now ‘us first,’ not ‘we’re only safe when everyone is safe’ and the money to be made from pharmaceuticals has emerged out form behind its temporarily altruistic veil.
The conflicts that Gallileo rode head on into were the belief of the time that the church was the only and absolute source of knowledge and that their view of knowledge was the one that ust be adhered to. Or else.
In our year of being participants in living science, we too have become part of Gallileo’s world. The advice that scientists offer is not arrived at on a whim. The best evidence, whatever their discipline be it virology, social science, behavioural science, ethics, is mediated through the same basic principles.
1) make an observation that describes a problem ( folk are getting ill and we don’t know why),
2) create a hypothesis ( is it a new bug?),
3) test the hypothesis (look at the bugs the ill folk have to see if its different) and
4) draw conclusions ( yes its a new bug no it isn’t its something else) and refine the hypothesis ( what kind of bug is it?.
The ratification of results will only become part of verified scientific knowledge when all possible doubts have been removed. This is why science is important to our concept of truth. It’s a system of verification in which we can all place our trust. Without that we would all be vulnerable to tricksters, charlatans and unscrupulous money makers. They are still out there however and trying their very best to undermine the process of scientific thought. Money is to be made from people who are fearful, desperate or want a quicker, miracle cure.
But science and the frontiers of knowledge also evolve. As more questions are asked more ideas tested, what was once the agreed limit of knowledge moves on. What is key to the furthering of knowledge is the system of arriving at proof. Crucially doubt is a key part of that. Scientists must interrogate their idea with every possible doubt, not skip a niggling doubt here or there to get a better, easier or quicker result.
The presence of covid 19 has brought into stark focus the amazing clarity and integrity of our scientific community. Their demeanour, articulacy, ability to communicate, break down complex things to make them understandable and still remain poised and calm in the face of open hostility and aggressive media interviewing is inspirational.
We live within a belief system as did Gallileo that would have us abandon science and this system strains on its leash to yell heretic at those who question the prevailing belief system. The system I am talking of in the UK is not an edict from the church but it is similarly as powerful as that which Gallileo faced. Our belief system champions an unquestioning adherence to consumption at all costs, an economy that over-exploits nature and the planet, keeps the huge majority of the population poor, ill housed, underfed and unhealthy and binds us through debt and insecurity into silence and inaction.
The power behind that belief system in which we are suffocated, lies in the ownership of the conduits of thought. What governs our thought is the media and the more all-pervasive it is the more powerful it is. In our society the most powerful owners of the media know they can rig our thoughts with Benny Hill type prurience over a cabinet minister’s roaming hands or change everyone’s views on a black footballer with the flick of a tabloid headline swatch.
The all-pervasive mind controlling media are our society’s inquisition. They will make, break, humiliate, laud or destroy you. They enforce the belief system that ensures their power and their wealth. The belief system that enshrines wealth and power as a right of birth and ultimately the feudal system of superiority sits with the monarch at the top who is supposed to be of a superior blood line to us all…
This belief system does not stand up to scrutiny nor to scientific rigour and functions to keep power influence and wealth where it has sat for centuries unchallenged and unchanged. It keeps us in a collective state of servile infancy. Those with power to lose know exactly what they are doing and will go to brutal ends to hold onto it. History tells us so.
Scientists are finding that their truth is in conflict with the prevailing feudal belief system of the Conservative government. The pressures exerted on the scientists come not from the blunt inquisition but the ridiculing and hounding of them by proxy through the right wing print media, social media and public service broadcasting. The hounding of them may not see them set on a rack that stretches their spine to breaking but it can lose them their jobs, stalk them for any perceived social media ‘misdemeanour’ and organise a ‘pile-on’ to harry them. Then the ‘useful idiots’ will do the dirty work in the field, jostle, threaten or intimidate for real.
This most right wing UK conservative government does not care about the health of its people, it only cares that enough are alive to continue to operate the machinery of an economy that works for them. The poor are an inconvenience to be left to charity.
As scientists have said from the start its not either or/ economy or health, it’s both, however an economy that has failed us all so badly to date is one that needs radical rethinking. That’s the next stage in our evolution to a better state of humanity in our small corner of the world.
Science and rationality are our friends against the edicts of the shamans, liars and tricksters that have swept so many souls up into a cynical spell of unquestioning belief. A belief that serves not only to harm those very believers but will kill them through the need to keep the version of the economy that works for the already wealthy on the road.
On the fifth of July the prime minister of the UK announced that he would sanction crossed fingers as the policy for removing covid restrictions for the population of England. It signals that where England goes the population of Scotland will be dragged. It signals that for our communal health in Scotland, not just Covid 19, but the systemic health inequalities of generations, our dependent status within the UK is a harm. The UK is not only bad for our health it is literally killing us.