The words came from Russell Foster at The Times Higher Education while he was musing on what it would be like to be invited to a cocktail party. He began:
The season is once again upon us when we scientists are asked to leave the safe embrace of our laboratories and enter the complex social matrix of unfamiliar relations, friends of friends and obligatory conversations with complete strangers.
Unwashed supplicants approach unknowable, powerful, and wise oracles and ask them to have a drink. Foster could, only just, deign to take part. But then he wondered and he fretted how he could possible explain to these near illiterates what he does for a living. He considered avoiding the subject and saving everybody the mental trauma involved in meeting a superiors minds, but he rejected this as beneath his vast intelligence and now has at the ready this speech:
“Well,” I say, “as a scientist my occupation grapples with the fundamental nature of truth. It is worth reflecting that before the emergence of a robust scientific class in the 19th century, truth was defined by the whim of the ruling class. Indeed, we scientists wrested truth away from the claws of religious dogma and liberated humanity from the leaden hand of ignorance and, in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”
This surpasses politician-level arrogance, exceeds even that found in appointed bureaucrats, and it comes thisclose to matching that from the Morning Star himself. His prose is purpler than the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s nose. And his grasp of intellectual history is feeble.
On the other hand, maybe we can agree with him when he says “we scientists wrested truth away” from the religious. Yes, and stomped it into the ground. In its place they hold aloft the idea that only Science can tell us what is true and what is false. Since that itself is not a scientific statement, and not subject to empirical verification, the ultimate goal of scientists can never be met.
And, incidentally, neither can “equality of opportunity” be found (which is not a scientific concept). Does he not remember those great scientific societies the USSR, Mao’s China, and the like? After his speech, he says he does this:
At this point I pause for both gas exchange and dramatic effect.
I wish he’d keep quiet about his flatulence. He continues:
“Why was it, do you think, that during the 19th century the poorer sectors of society embraced science so avidly?”
Military advantage, mostly. Science has given us efficient and creative tools with which to massacre ourselves.
People were there not only to hear the latest scientific findings about the origins of our species, but also to witness first-hand the liberating affirmation that truth is the product of experimentation and is forged upon evidence.
Let’s remind Foster that no mathematical truth—and mathematics is the language of science—can be the product of experimentation nor forged upon observational evidence. Thought itself could not begin or progress without truths which are not and cannot be known by experimental evidence.
“The words ‘how’ and ‘why’ took on a new and sharper significance 150 years ago, cutting the knots of meek acceptance that bound the individual to the state, allowing humanity to stride unfettered into the modern world…
“So that’s what I do — how about you?” [ellipsis original]
Listen, Rusty, we see how much “freer” from the State we are the more science there is. I think of this every time I look into a CCTV camera or go through a TSA x-ray or scan the newspapers to see what new food the government has scientifically forbidden me to eat.
Foster admits his speech bombed once: “I apparently soured the atmosphere after midnight Mass.” “But,” he says “At least I felt better knowing that I had shared an appreciation of the scientific method. Christmas is a time for giving, and what more precious gift could a scientist give?”
I don’t know. Humility?