Auguste Comte

Richard Grant’s article Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public makes two good points about why people are often suspicious of scientists. I shall add a third, which to me is the important one.

Grant is pro-science. The population, he tells us, is not on the whole scientifically literate, and scientists want us to give us and our children a better life. It’s for our own good that they tell us their stuff.

The first of his explanations is that people don’t like being told what to do.

This is part of what Michael Gove was driving at when he said people had had enough of experts. We rely on doctors and nurses to make us better, and on financial planners to help us invest. We expect scientists to research new cures for disease, or simply to find out how things work… But when these experts tell us how to live our lives – or even worse, what to think – something rebels.

His second point is that most people are not at heart anti-science. They

simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them. It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true. This is why, when you bring data to a TV show, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgemental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.

Let’s ask why. On the first point, the problem is clear. Every society needs experts, but most of us, most of the time, want to keep control of our lives. We want to consult experts, not invite them to take over altogether. Especially as we know that they sometimes get things wrong.

The second relates to the limits of science. Scientific research, and the resulting ‘facts’, are normally defined in terms of observable data and the laws of nature derived from them. Values are a different matter altogether. The more strongly scientists insist that they know the hard facts, the more we instinctively – and rightly – seek to defend those soft non-facts. Do these people really care about our well-being?

My additional point is to give it a historical background. These suspicions of scientists have often been justified. The issue lies not with science as such, but the cult of science. It is sometimes called ‘scientism’. An older term for it is ‘positivism’.

This word was invented by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century founder of sociology. Comte believed that science is the highest form of knowledge. All true knowledge comes from observation via the senses. Unobservables cannot exist. Everything is determined by whatever preceded it, including human behaviour. So we have no free will. People don’t know what is in their own interests. There is therefore no point in democracy. The job of sociologists is to find out the laws determining human behaviour, and then use them to run society.

This is the logic behind the tradition of social engineering. The experts are working out how to improve society, and as they know best it makes sense for them to impose their findings on the rest of us, however much we ignoramuses object. Applied to penal policy it meant stiffer and stiffer punishments for criminals, on the assumption that if they were stiff enough nobody would commit crimes. Applied to eugenics it meant killing off inferior types of people, or making them infertile so that the next generation would be of better stock. Applied to racism it meant killing off blacks because whites were superior. All these ‘advances’ were proclaimed by scientists in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Once accepted as scientific, dictators could consider themselves fit to apply them: Hitler, Stalin and Mao all thought they knew how to improve society.

Here’s the catch. If the human mind is so determined that people don’t know what is good for them, then the mind of the social engineer is equally determined. And even the mind of the scientist. To avoid this conclusion and rescue those projects, we got a couple of centuries of a kind of unacknowledged dualism: their minds are determined, we know. So the knowers give themselves permission to override the wishes of the rest of us. Given the disastrous history of social engineering, people are understandably suspicious of science-based instructions to change our ways.

Why did this tradition ever arise? Comte’s generation of intellectuals, especially in France, were working on a new account of reality which excluded God. As long as a society believes that the world has been created by an intending mind, they naturally assume that their bodies and their environment have been designed to work together in an intended way. When God gets replaced by unintending, unthinking laws of nature, there is no design. Everything is accident. But you and I do at least have minds, so we should be able to do better. Let’s find out how things work, and make improvements.

So society invests in a team of experts, scientists who will find out all they can. But they will still be humans, with the same strengths and weaknesses that the rest of us have. They will never know everything.

Because we know our own feelings better than anybody else does, nobody can be sure they know what we need better than we do. Except somebody who transcends all humanity, in both knowledge and goodness. That would be different.