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It is sad that we can no longer trust experts – but then, too many lie expertly

We have learned that a decade of higher study does not buy integrity.

I was thinking about something that I thought was completely different, when an article in the Times caught my eye. Apparently, killer diseases are returning to the developed world because “Whole Foods mums” are refusing to give their children the MMR vaccine. (These womenfolk are also referred to as “organic mothers”, cementing the assumption that organic food and a suspicion of vaccines are part of an overall lifestyle choice.)

According to the Vaccine Alliance’s Dr Seth Berkley, this hippy-dippy decision is based on a mix of complacency, “anti-science sentiments” and celebrity meddling from, among others, Robert De Niro and the “former nude model Jenny McCarthy”. Dr Berkley added: “Experts don’t have the same credibility… We’re really in trouble when a Playboy bunny has the same authority as the American Academy of Paediatrics.”

Setting aside the sexism of reducing McCarthy to a “Playboy bunny” (she has since built a successful career as an actress, TV personality and author) and the patronising tone reserved for mothers who dare to make their own decisions about the family diet, it is difficult not to sympathise with Dr Berkley. He is, after all, an expert, and experts are supposed to be listened to.

Back in the good old days, experts spoke and the woman whose brain, uterus or lifestyle they were manipulating did as she was told.

Then something changed. I remember an encounter with a “chief scientist” sent by the Central Electricity Generating Board to talk to a little band of folk protesting about the increasing problem of acid rain some time during the 1980s. This expert swanned in, patronised our group, produced a few statistics to show that acid rain was a figment of our poor, untutored imaginations, and was about to swan out again when one of our number asked one last question. This led to a long dialogue, during which others in the group (a statistician, a systems designer and someone with a PhD in botany) politely demolished the half-baked scientific model that this chief scientist had thrown together earlier that day.

We don’t trust politicians and we can’t trust banks, but we cannot trust our “experts”, either. We have learned that a decade of higher study does not buy integrity. Experts work for tobacco and drug companies, agribusiness and government – to name only a few systematic liars – and unless they are prepared to lose their jobs, they have to put a scientific spin on whatever the boss says.

Like attack dogs, they have to pile in mercilessly if someone steps out of line, whether it’s a “Playboy bunny” or an advocate of more open-minded research into autism. This brings me to the other thing I was thinking about, which turned out not to be so different after all.

It was the US conservationist and author Rachel Carson who wrote, at a time when she was being vilified daily by paid experts on all sides, that ours is “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”. She knew the danger posed by paid experts who, in cutting their cloth to suit their corporate masters, not only promulgated downright lies, but also undermined the very fabric of science.

It’s sad that the good experts are being lumped in with the bad but, having been lied to so expertly for so long, the public can hardly be expected to discern truth from falsehood.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist