I bought a copy of the National Geographic magazines (£5.50 but cheap at the price) on the strength of its front-page headline THE WAR ON SCIENCE.
The cover also included a series of propositions which are quite anti-scientific but which are accepted by huge numbers of people and can be taught in schools, particularly in America and, increasingly, in Britain; for instance, that man-enhanced climate change doesn’t exist, that evolution never happened, that vaccinations can produce autism and that genetically-modified food is evil.
The article, by Joel Achenbach, opens with a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s says-it-all film Dr Strangelove, in which the crazily belligerent General Jack D Ripper will only drink distilled water because “fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face.”
Which was meant as a joke but might not work as a joke now, when fluoride, long accepted as a safe and cheap way to safeguard dental health, has again become controversial, just like the teaching of evolution. Ninety years after the Scopes trial in Tennessee, which should now look like a quaint attempt to preserve the concept of creationalism against all reason, English academy schools, well funded by Christian fundamentalists, are demanding equal time for anti-science. In America, a third of people think humans have existed in their present form since time began.
On man-made climate change, which non-scientists have to accept on trust, the science being beyond us, the division is between Right and Left – between Nigel Lawson and anybody slightly to the left of Nigel Lawson, which, of course, doesn’t include most of the media or the right-wing think tanks paid millions to spread the news that Britain is in thrall to a liberal, lefty elite.
I suspect, although I’ve not found any research on the subject, that the division between believers in man-made climate change and sceptics would match various other indicators of political and social outlook. Sceptics might like Downton Abbey, Land Rovers, holidays in Tenerife, the royal family, Phil Collins and car polish, for example, while believers would tend towards Newsnight, Fiat Puntos, holidays in Brittany, dingy cotton clothing, aubergines and charity shops.
If we are walking into an irretrievable global disaster, I blame democracy, or at least the belief that all views are equally valid and that the popularity of a belief is a measure of its merit – this is why homeopathy is seldom defended on the grounds that it has some proven scientific merit, just on the grounds that tens of thousands of people believe in it, so it must be true. The facts don’t come into it and science won’t win the truth war until we’ve all fried in our beds.