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27 February 2011

Choose Darwin over Dickens

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

By Robin Ince

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.

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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.

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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