Persecution of the geeks

When a lad turned up at my comprehensive school in deepest Essex in the late 1970s and claimed a strong interest in mathematics, he was immediately nicknamed "Pillock" and remorselessly bullied until he moved on.

And I remember how later, when I was at Cambridge, within the rarefied junior common room (or bar, as it might otherwise be known), it was possible to find in one corner a group of earnest, bespectacled, young "natskis" (a mildly abusive label for those studying the natural sciences) playing tiddlywinks. In another corner, there would often be the rugby club, usually engaged in unsophisticated drinking games, after which they
would invariably steal the tiddlywinkers' board and wreck their night out.

The general perception was that the rugby boys were cool and the tiddlywinkers were "sad", antisocial losers. Why does society seek to shun and ridicule science and scientists? What are people afraid of? The modern world - the food we eat, the way we travel, our staple means of entertainment and communication, our health and well-being - is all pretty much the product of scientific endeavour. Science and scientists should be at the heart of society and respected as such. Yet the general perception remains that scientists are weird geeks or dangerous zealots who occupy territory somewhere along the autism spectrum.

The recent attack by the career pontificator Simon Jenkins in the Guardian against science in general and Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society, in particular, was dismal. Rees is, according to Jenkins, little more than a scrounger who squeezed a fortune from the last government and is now mounting a campaign to soften the blows on science from George Osborne's sharpened axe.

Jenkins points his grubby finger at the perceived blunders of contemporary science. But, in so doing, he reflects society's failure to credit science for its successes. He deplores the advice that kept planes on the ground in April and May because of the dust clouds created by the Icelandic volcano, while conveniently ignoring the scientific advances that put planes in the air at all. He mocks the science that banned beef on the bone without mentioning how science identified the "prions" that cause mad cow disease. Science, he goes on, wasted £2bn on Tamiflu. More importantly, he forgets that science discovered that flu is caused by a virus. Science invented Tamiflu, too.

Why does science allow itself to be caricatured in this way? Is it because scientists fail to articulate the relevance of their work? Or do people fear those who wish to probe the unknown, and so set them, like medieval witches, on the periphery of society?

I read another crude anti-science diatribe, written by James Le Fanu, in the August issue of Prospect magazine. We have found out all we can about the world using the scientific method, he argues. Science can go little further in probing the origins of life or the mystery of consciousness. Like a fool locked in a closed room, Le Fanu contents himself with the belief that he has seen the boundaries of space and time. The stupidity and complacency of his position are laughable.

As we move from the playground and the student union into the real world, so the stakes rise and science-bashers raise their game. Last year, for example, the science writer Simon Singh was sued for libel after querying the scientific foundations of some of the more far-fetched claims of chiropractors. Thankfully, a campaign led by the laudable Sense About Science group supported Singh and the case was eventually dropped.

And in October 2009, David Nutt's scientifically sound but politically unpopular advice on drugs led to his sacking as a government scientific adviser. Hans Blix, a seasoned career diplomat, may have weathered the storm unleashed on him by the American right following his calm, objective investigation into weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but David Kelly was less fortunate in this country. The anti-science bullies got him in the end.

Michael Barrett is professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science