Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Merrie 'Unscientific' England

‘One question is always asked, one objection is always those who show curiosity about nature, when ill-educated people see natural philosophers examining its products. They ask, often with contemptuous laughter, ‘What use is it?...such people think that natural philosophy is just about the gratification of curiosity, just an amusement to pass the time for lazy and thoughtless people’.

Carl Linnaeus 1707-1778

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have just released a new book entitled ‘Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future’. As the authors lament, science and scientists have declined in the popular culture of the U.S. since their heyday in the years following WW II. For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science. The number of newspapers with science sections has shrunk from 95 to 34 since 1989. Bn contrast, virtually every newspaper now runs a daily astrology column. On the other hand, while the demotion of Pluto from it’s status as a planet produced sacks of hate mail, it did also ignite a wave of interest in astronomy.

This type of strained relationship between science and society is nothing new and one finds an interesting parallel to it in Early Modern England, not least because the public had trouble seeing what use natural philosophy could possibly be. In his ‘Emergence of a Scientific CultureStephen Gaukroger points out that ‘the image of natural philosophy as a worthwhile enterprise was not something that was secure in the Scientific revolution’. As a result, the recently formed Royal Society almost collapsed soon after its inception due to a lack of attendance and funding. Having failed to secure an endowment from the king, the society was forced to rely on the joining fees and subscriptions paid by men of high wealth and status, many of whom made a very small contribution to natural philosophy.

The society itself was to come under sharp criticism from figures such as the Public Orator Robert South, who (a bit unfairly) referred to it’s members as:

‘the profane atheistical, rabble, whom the nation rings of, and who have lived so much to the defiance of God...a company of lewd, shallow brained, huffs making atheism and contempt of religion, the sole badge of wit, gallantry and true discretion; and then over their pots and pipes, claiming and engrossing all these wholly to themselves; magisterially censuring the wisdom of all antiquity, scoffing at all piety, and, as it were, new modelling the whole world.. the truth is, the persons here reflected upon are of such a peculiar stamp of impiety, that they seem to be a set of fellows got together and formed into a kind of diabolical society for the finding out of new experiments in vice’

Gaukroger quotes the Royal Societies patron King Charles II, laughing at the Royal Society for, according to Samuel Pepys, ‘spending time only in weighing of ayre and doing nothing else since they sat’. Things were so bad that Henry Oldenburg lamented to Robert Boyle that if only the Royal Society had made the most of their part in Wren’s plan for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, for this ‘would have given the Society a name, and made it popular, and availed to silence those, who aske continuously, what have they done?’. This was a sentiment echoed elsewhere in Europe. As Linnaeus complained in 1740:

‘one question is always asked, one objection is always those who show curiosity about nature, when ill-educated people see natural philosophers examining its products. They ask, often with contemptuous laughter, ‘What use is it?...such people think that natural philosophy is just about the gratification of curiosity, just an amusement to pass the time for lazy and thoughtless people’.

One of the most interesting public responses to the emergence of scientific societies documented by Gaukroger was Thomas Shadwell’s popular comedy ‘The Virtuoso’. This scathingly depicted Natural Philosophers as needlessly obsessive about obscure features of nature. The character of Sir Nicolas Gimcrack, based on Robert Hooke, is described as one ‘who has broken his brains about the nature of maggots; who has studied these twenty years to find out the various sorts of spiders and never cares for understanding mankind’. In one speech Gimcrack remarks ‘Tis below a virtuoso to trouble himself with men and manners. I study insects’. Hooke attended a performance and was so offended he wrote in his diary ‘Damned dogs. Vindica me dues (God grant me revenge’.

In 1709 a William King decided to publish a series of parodies of the Royal Societies ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in which the members are given instructions on how to write unintelligibly. Not that that there wasn’t something in King’s critique. Issac Newton once told a friend that ‘he designedly made his Principia abstruse’ to ‘avoid being baited by smatterers in Mathematicks’ and a spokesperson for the Royal Society celebrated it’s members lack of ‘ambition to be cry’d up by the common herd;’. In another publication by Thomas Brown, natural philosophers are depicted as trying to cure a boy who had swallowed a knife and deciding upon a more ‘philosophical remedy, and therefore better approv’d; and that was to apply a loadstone to his arse and so draw it out by magnetick attraction’.

In the event the Society was more than capable, through such members as Sprat and Dryden, of dishing out ridicule in return and does not seem to have suffered too greatly. Natural philosophy would eventually capture the imagination of the populace and the attitude would shift in the 19th century to a more respectful one. As a report in the Gentleman’s magazine of 1745 noted, demonstrations of electrical phenomena were ‘so surprising as to awaken the indolent curiosity of the public, the ladies and people of quality, who never regard natural philosophy but when it works miracles’.

See - The emergence of a scientific culture - Stephen Gaukroger p35-39

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Karl said...

I think a lot of scientists only have themselves to blame for the strained relation they have with the public. Take for instance how Marian Stamp Dawkins just spent $500,000, in the middle of a major recession to boot, to determine if ducks are more comfortable standing under a sprinkler than paddling around in a pond. All her research led her to conclude that ducks basically just like water.

When the working class man sees things like that they usually don't like it. They can probably think of dozens of different ways that those resources, time and money could have been better spent. Couple that with the contempt some scientists display publicly for the common man and it is no surprise that science has a strained relationship with mainstream society.

Humphrey said...

Interestingly the book says that:

'...citizens of other nations don’t fare much better on scientific literacy surveys, and in many cases fare worse. Residents of the European Union, for instance, are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, at least according to one metric for measuring “civic science literacy” across countries.'

I suspect the reason scientific illiteracy is so high (assuming that it is) is that it simply doesn't capture the public's imagination in the same way it did in the 50s and 60s. A lot of people I know are apathetic towards it and simply glaze over why I try and have a conversation with them about it. Be interesting to look into the reasons for that, especially when you consider how much science and technology dominates our society.

Humphrey said...

Following on from the last comment. It seems as if Biblical literacy is on the decline as well (at least in the UK).


"The study revealed that 62% of respondents did not know the parable of the Prodigal Son and 60% could not name anything about the story of the Good Samaritan.

One respondent said David and Goliath was the name of a ship, while another thought Daniel - who survived being thrown into the lions' den - was the Lion King.

Younger interviewees told researchers that the Bible was "old-fashioned", "irrelevant" and "for Dot Cottons" - in reference to the churchgoing character in the BBC One soap."

Maybe people are just more interested in soap operas and celebrities than the Sermon on the Mount or whether the earth happens to go round the sun (only half of Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun according to Mooney's book).