A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon; so that when you think that the moon should make it flood with us, those gentlemen fancy it should be ebb, which very unluckily cannot be proved. For to be able to do this, it is necessary the moon and the tides should have been inquired into at the very instant of the creation. Voltaire c.1778 Letters on the English. Letter XIV—On Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton
While homeschooling my children, BBC Bitesize clips have helpfully reminded me in a series of cartoon clips, that hyperbole “is exaggerating for a purpose – it is not meant to be taken literally and it’s used to emphasise a point”. I think Voltaire is using hyperbole here; he doesn’t’ actually think the world is different in London – he is making a point. I think Voltaire is actually making a very profound statement about the nature of truth and knowledge and the problem of politicising the search for knowledge. When knowledge is politicised, truth can become those statements made by the scientist selected by the polity as the superior scientist. In this case, Newton was English and Descartes was French and for some reason, which had little to do with scientific merit, their nationality and indeed personality mattered to the English and the French respectively.
In the 5th century BC, ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras and Thales had begun to develop scientific and mathematic procedures and to use them to identify laws that governed nature. Laws which would always be true. One idea about why this way of thinking emerged at that time was the change of the Greek city into a political institution which required the development of rhetoric and analytic thinking to support a process of governing over a body of people. Challenging the notion of universal laws of nature at this time was another philosopher, Zeno, who presented a set of paradoxes – seemingly nonsensical examples which refuted common understandings of the nature of the world. One example was Achilles and the tortoise in which Zeno uses a set of logical sequences to prove that if the tortoise has a head start in the race, Achilles can never overtake, in spite of him being many times faster.
Some of the examples offered by Zeno seemed ridiculous at face value but presented and continue to present major challenges to the philosophy of science and mathematics. Ultimately what they illustrate for me is that all scientific theories are flawed. As suggested by Foucault, Latour and others, knowledge is historically and culturally contingent – we are not more enlightened now than we were before. All scientific theories will need flaws or gaps to be corrected over time and in the process will morph into a new theory which will also need correcting. Our modern political system which has ancient roots in Greek political organisation is perhaps ever coupled with the naïve belief in the constant progress of science and in the possibility of universal laws of nature which we are moving ever closer to solving.
And so of course, with the politicisation of science, we have seen over the millennia, the politicisation of scientists. Following Greek tradition, the superstars have mostly been men: Pythagoras, Thales, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato. Fast forward to Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein. We tend to forget the names of great women scientists like Hypatia, murdered in a political altercation in 415 BC; or Rosalind Franklin, who died before having proper recognition for her work on DNA with lasting controversy over alleged theft or misappropriation of her photos and data. Most of us have never heard of the many historical superstars of ancient Islamic, Egyptian or Babylonian mathematics, nor even more modern non-Western scientists. We might ask why scientific fame would be subject to gender and ethnic bias and the answer must in part be because science grounded in Western democracies has always been inherently political.
Part of the problem with superstardom in science is not just that every scientific theory is in some way flawed; but that every individual scientist is also wrong some or maybe most of the time. As noted, Zeno pointed out flaws in the many logical arguments of ancient Greek philosophers. Marie Curie kept radioactive material on her bedside table as a night light and so gradually poisoned herself.
Albert Einstein got it wrong. Not once, not twice, but countless times. He made subtle blunders, he made outright goofs, his oversights were glaring. Error infiltrated every aspect of his thinking. He was wrong about the universe, wrong about its contents, wrong about the workings of atoms.
This would seem to be a surprise, something to remark, that a great genius might get things wrong. If we believe there are universal laws of nature that can all be solved one day with the right mind and the right technology, then we will continue to fall into the trap of rhetoric – the glue that binds science to politics – the idea that the best science comes from the best person. Seeking knowledge is better served with a focus on the extent to which any scientific claim is cautious yet useful, reproducible in a range of settings, based on reasonable interpretations of evidence. Scientific claims should be tested, informed by and judged by a range of people who might use or implement the conclusions deriving from the claim including (in the case of clinical science) patients and the public. It will always be problematic to adopt individual scientists as the truth-makers instead of the scientific claims themselves.
So to the modern fashion for Chief Scientific Officers, Chief Medical Officers and in the same vein, an entire organisation imbued with the authority of the UK polity to make scientific claims: the National Institute for Heath and Care Excellence (NICE). In discussing the so-called ‘political independence’ of NICE, I wrote about the ways in which NICE is in fact not accountable in any legal, scientific or political sense. NICE has been granted the status of Chief Scientific Organisation which means that no citizen or even judge can question its decisions and no politician will interfere. To hold the status of politically appointed scientist or scientific organisation is nothing to do with the quality of scientific claims these individuals or organisations produce. Just like convicting Galileo of heresy and keeping him under house arrest all his life was nothing to do with the exactitude of his scientific claims. We now find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic in which we need good science more than ever. Instead we are stumbling through with no better idea of how to respond as a nation, individual or family than any society that went before us. We are in the hands of rhetoricians, orators, eulogisers – some more eloquent than others but none revealing a great deal of truth.