By Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, NZ$39.95 | Reviewed by Andy Armitage

THE TITLE of Bernard Beckett’s latest book, Falling for Science, provides an apt expression for our relationship with scientific narratives. We fall for science in the sense that we are in love with the achievements and possibilities of science, and in the sense that we are often taken-in by its sexed-up narratives.

Beckett charts a brief history of the Western philosophical relationship with truth, guiding the reader through the discoveries and attitudes of the ancient Greeks, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, and into the modern (and postmodern) era. In doing so, Beckett indicates that the relationship between civilisation and truth has been more problematic than is popularly believed.

We assume that we have rejected the notion of accepting absolute truth from authority. After all, our willingness to interrogate nature has resulted in the scientific revolution that led directly to the comforts and technologies we now enjoy. Fair enough - but have we been a little dazzled by this new way of interrogating our world? Have we replaced one authority with another? The blind-faith previously reserved for the priest now appears to be the privilege enjoyed by the men in white coats. Our faith in science to provide truth is an unhelpful and dangerous attitude, Beckett warns, and it is largely the result of confusing science and story. Science is about modelling data in order to predict results; story is the interpretation and meaning we derive from these results.

One of the central concerns of Falling for Science is uncovering the mystical notion of truth that often directs our thinking and attitudes. Beckett posits a pragmatic definition, suggesting that truths should be considered as helpful rather than singular. Science, Beckett points out, is in the business of providing utilitarian truths that enable us to predict outcomes with some degree of certainty. Because something has occurred under certain conditions for a certain number of times in the past, we have good reason to believe that it will do so again. But are scientific results and truth the same thing?

David Hume pointed out that the scientific method relies upon an assumption that our world is governed by stable and continuous laws. This may be true at some levels but at the quantum level, for example, it appears to be false. Science also relies upon our peculiar and limited human perceptions for the veracity of its observations, and in the reliability of human reason to order the results. But, as Kant argued, what if the order we perceive in nature is simply a projection of the way we think and make sense, rather than a quality of the world we observe.

Falling for Science develops and sustains a distinction between science and story and relates this distinction to a range of historical and contemporary ideas. Beckett’s analysis of this problem in the form of a popular science book (rather than a philosophical treatise) is timely, given the sensational scientific breakthroughs appearing on a daily basis in our newspapers.

Beckett relies on Karl Popper’s definition of science: it is science if it is falsifiable (meaning it can be discredited by simple tests in the future) and it has information content (it provides us with unexpected data rather than merely being used to prove something already known). Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection are both good examples of science according to Popper’s criteria. Their predictions have been tested and verified by subsequent modelling and data. But while Einstein’s science has been able to exist quietly in the background as a play-thing for the pointy-heads, the idea of evolution has, since its conception, been surrounded by rabid debate and argument. The problem, Beckett points out, is that evolution messes with our most precious stories.

Beckett’s appraisal of the narratives relating to evolution is the most rewarding section of Falling for Science. Darwin’s theory is, of course, incredibly simple: species evolve through random mutations, and successful adaptations in particular environments are more likely to be passed on the mutations in subsequent generations. Darwin’s theory is good science because of its predictive qualities, it predicted a unit of heritage (genes), it allows us to predict how viruses might mutate over time, and it has led to the mapping of DNA and the human genome, and so on. But where this science is used to give us meaning the stories begin.

Evolution was used by the eugenics movement and the Nazis, who latched onto the widely misunderstood notion survival of the fittest in order to justify the extermination of unwanted categories of people. Marx used evolution as a metaphor to explain what he imagined as an inevitable historical development of human social systems leading directly to Communism. The Communists also claimed that our communal attitudes reflected our true scientifically-established nature. Capitalists, on the other hand, have used natural selection as a metaphor to justify a free market as the most natural political system.

So how can one scientific model provide so many different meanings? Beckett argues that science can only provide the raw data and predictions, the attitudes and meaning we take from the data (or science) are provided by our stories.

Beckett’s survey of genetics struck a particular chord, in lieu of New Zealand researcher, Ron Lea’s (not named by Beckett) infuriatingly irresponsible announcement of the discovery of the ‘Warrior Gene’ in Maori men, which he linked to risk-taking and aggression. Claims such as these, Beckett points out, ignore the cultural and physical environmental conditions which modify the way the brain develops, the individual’s free-will and individual experiences – which also modify how the brain develops, and link a type of behaviour (though behaviour is incredibly difficult to describe and quantify) to a simplistic form of genetic fatalism.

Sensational assertions such as Lea’s are unscientific in that they are wilfully un-falsifiable (the data cannot be tested in a neutral environment) and the claims are simply used to support existing prejudices (there is no information content – no new and surprising results). As Bernard Beckett points out, the risk-taking gene may indeed be over-represented in New Zealand prisons, but it is also over-represented on the Rich List! Evolution is tacked onto the back of suspect science as a kind of post hoc omniscience. To use one of Beckett’s metaphors, this type of science can be compared to the story of a boy who shoots bull’s-eye every time; he does so by shooting into the wall first and painting the target on afterwards.

There are a number of other pseudo-scientific myths Beckett grapples with. He questions the usefulness of genetics in charting migration trends, family trees, and ethnicity, the claims of socio-biology and evolutionary-psychology, and the usefulness of comparing animal and human behaviour. Beckett is convincing in his demonstrations of where science ends and story begins because he is able to convince the reader of utterly contrary claims based on the same data.

Beckett’s final area of investigation looks at another form of science that has the potential to overthrow our most precious stories. Contemporary neurology and its ambitions to understand human consciousness has the potential to be as disturbing as Darwin’s idea. If our experience of consciousness, our subjective perceptions and experiences, can be reduced to electric signals and impulses, to the result of a complex programme, where does that leave us as human beings? As far as we know, the human brain is the most complex machine in the universe and there are many scientists and philosophers who believe we can never fully understand it. And, as Beckett points out, even if we did manage this staggering feat, would a reductive account of our basic sensations being sensory signals sent to our brains be very useful? We experience sensations as distinctly tangible events that are coloured by our memories – surely this cannot be expressed in any meaningful way as an abstract formula. Isn’t this like attempting to reduce a joke to an equation? Or describing a television drama in terms of the coloured pixels displayed on the screen?

Beckett points out that while scientists may have made great advances in physics and chemistry, in terms of its understanding of the human condition, science has got no further than Shakespeare. It offers no predictions about human behaviour that we can’t find in Shakespeare’s plays.

If there is any criticism to level at this book, it is the conspicuous absence of the global warming debate, a theory that has attracted scientists among both its supporters and detractors. But this is a small complaint given the book’s already impressive scope.

Beckett offers a distinction between science and story that is urgently in need of your critical attention; he celebrates both these traditions of making sense of the world we inhabit and our place within it. This is a thought-provoking book delivered with a healthy dose of humour, and is as important a treatise for the arts as it is for the sciences.