In an age dependent on scientific progress and scientific methodology, Robin Dunbar points out the woeful level of understanding of science, and particularly the lengths
that universities must go to in order to attract students onto scientific courses. The ultimate cost of this will be a poorer grade of scientist, and a decline in standards in scientific education in general by osmosis. This book is intended to be a part remedy to this problem, by encouraging a greater interest in the subject.
As a potted history of the development of science and its underlying philosophy (for the book is less than 200 pages long), it is very readable. However, in trying to engender interest in the modern reader, it shoots itself in the foot on two or three occasions.
Science did not begin with Newton, and has always been used, even in `pre-scientific' times, both by humans as well as animals. On one occasion, he points out the tremendous feat of memory exhibited by a native who, having crossed a desert in his
childhood, was able to remember the way in adulthood from various markings en route, and was able to lead an expedition on a 1000 mile journey in more or less a straight line. Such knowledge and the ability to absorb it, we are told, was essential to his survival, while we commit such information to computers and rely on technology to show the way. That is surely the point, which prevented one ancient King from accepting the written word from Thoth, on the grounds that it would make his soldiers lazy. We are the inheritors of the latter, and our survival does not depend on knowledge we carry within us, but on socio-economic factors. Most people may know nothing about quantum theory, yet have an incredibly detailed knowledge of ISAs, PEPs, the meaning of capital growth and so on.
However, this is a minor point in comparison to the case he makes for science, by turning its negative components into a sort of charm. To do this, he defends the reductionist stance by defining two forms of it to the exclusion of a third, the third
being responsible for the lack of interest in science.
No-one would dispute the necessity of breaking up knowledge into compartments that produces useful information and knowledge, which is the source of the two forms of reductionism he refers to, but he makes no mention of the fact that science since the
Enlightenment is based on the unquestioned assumption of inertia, an assumption which by its nature excludes any reference to what he called the elan vital (quoting Bergson) and which he feels is responsible for so many problems with respect to the acceptability of science. Ultimately, scientific statements reduce to this principle, and must show some allegiance to it, even though it is impossible to derive any principles of self-activation from it, principles which by their nature transcend the knowledge of science. It is not the difficulties of science, nor its uncommon sense that makes
science so unattractive - it is the fact that it has nothing to offer the human consciousness with respect to the nature of its own self-esteem and self-worth.
All this is glossed over, however, in the attempt to make science more attractive. The problem is that ultimately, he is suggesting a kind of science `national service', an enforced learning programme that makes people more aware of the importance of science. The fact that people are voting with their feet to stay away from science is as much due to this form of reduction as it may be for the reasons he gives, but I tend to
favour the former. In that light, his book reflects a form of dogmatism one associates with thinking that has reached its sell-by date and outgrown its usefulness. Yes, science is important, but it is not everything.