Choose Darwin over Dickens

Why are arts graduates so proud to be ignorant of science?

Late last year, I was at a novelist's house, ogling his bookshelves as he made a pot of extravagant tea. The hardback spines showed a broad array of classic 19th-century fiction, novels by or about New York neurotics and a little philosophy. But there was one glaring omission. When he came back, I asked him why he didn't have any science. "Why should I?" he replied. "It's boring." Indignant, I reeled off a lengthy reading list containing tales of biological curiosities and genetic discoveries. Was he not interested in the evolution of the giant tube worm? How a bat's sonar works? He poured the tea and then declared that those subjects weren't really "his sort of thing". What state are we in where educated people can think that science is boring? How is it acceptable to have a good knowledge of Dickens but none of Darwin?

It's time to realise that art isn't as important as science. It's sometimes beautiful, often enthralling, certainly needed; and it's one of the wonderful things that makes us human. But it isn't equal to the scientific knowledge we have amassed over the past few centuries.

I say all of this as one of the many misguided individuals who forsook science for the arts. I finished my English degree knowing how to read a novel and poetry - then, in my cocksure mid-twenties, I was lucky enough to trip over and realise just how little I knew about science. I picked up a Carl Sagan book and I was enthralled by him - and appalled by me.

Our widespread ignorance of science, evidence and the peer review process could have serious consequences. When confronted by the limits of our own knowledge, the temp­tation is to rely on hearsay and anecdote, repackaged as "common sense". From evolution and climate change to GM crops and the MMR vaccine, columnists and passers-by holler their opinions, even if the facts at their fingertips are scant or fictional.

Otherwise intelligent commentators feel entitled to forthright opinions on the latest science story of the day, because if they are smart enough to critique The Brothers Karamazov, then they can hold their own on dark energy or vaccinations. But while a minority opinion on the role of God and free will in Dostoevsky harms no one, ill-informed anti-vaccination posturing can lead to epidemics and death.

I recently presented a documentary about Schrödinger's cat, a thought experiment in the arena of quantum physics. Some listeners complained that the BBC was airing a show that celebrated gassing animals. Perhaps this level of dottiness shouldn't be so surprising, given that children can opt out of science entirely after their GCSEs. According to a Royal Society report, published on 15 February, only 17 per cent of young people between 16 and 18 took one science AS level or more in 2009.

There is too much at stake for the next generation to be ignorant of science. How can we be living in a time when the human genome is sequenced yet psychics can still become millionaires? We have the most complex structure in the known universe in our skulls. Let's not waste it - even us arts graduates.

Robin Ince will be touring his Bad Book Club from March. More details at: robinince.com

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496