Delusions of Inadequacy: A review of Curtis White’s ‘The Science Delusion’

In the opening scenes of Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 Western parody Blazing Saddles, Burton Gilliam’s racist overseer Lyle demands that his black railroad labourers perform “a good ol’ nigger work song”. When the obliging work gang, led by Cleavon Little’s Bart, burst into an elegant a cappella version of Cole Porter’s ‘I get a kick out of you’, Lyle stops them, and he and his cowboy colleagues show them what a ‘real’ negro song is supposed to be like, with a spirited rendition of ‘De Camptown Ladies’ – complete with minstrel dancing and derogatory mispronunciation – while the black labourers look on dumbfounded, unable to relate to the racist caricature played out before them.

The stereotyping skewered so effectively in this scene bears close parallels to the views presented by Curtis White in his book ‘The Science Delusion’.

White’s stated aim is to critically examine the ‘privileged place’ of science in secular western society. His thesis though is built around a definition of ‘science’ that I fail to recognize, and a crude caricature of the scientist – a cold, detached savant unable to appreciate human emotions or true beauty – that seems to have been based largely on watching re-runs of Big Bang Theory.

Bart and his fellow convicts responding to overseer Lyle's entreaty: “Now come on boys, where's your spirit? I don't hear no singin'. When you were slaves, you sang like birds. Go on. How 'bout a good ole nigger work song?” Still image taken from Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles".

Bart and his fellow railroad labourers responding to overseer Lyle’s entreaty: “Now come on boys, where’s your spirit? I don’t hear no singin’. When you were slaves, you sang like birds. Go on. How ’bout a good ole nigger work song?”
Still image taken from Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles”.

At the heart of White’s failed analysis lies the equation of science with a moral and political philosophy. It isn’t enough that science produces new ideas and insights to inspire discussion – White wants to be told what to think about them, complaining that science doesn’t inform us how to judge its discoveries. “Far too many scientists”, he writes, “leave the ethical meaning of their work to people bereft of moral imagination”.

But as any serious student of science could tell you, White is tilting at windmills of his own imagination here. Science is nothing more nor less than an ordered way of assessing problems and testing ideas – a systematic approach to problem solving and self criticism. It is explicitly not a code of Bushido by which to live.

At the heart of White’s critique though is not a dislike of science itself – indeed, as becomes apparent in the later chapters of his work, White actually both understands the nature of the scientific method, and appreciates the beauty to be found in science through the challenge it poses to the existing order. Rather, the over-riding narrative is one of visceral disrespect for the practitioners of science, expressed through sweeping generalizations that if you replaced the word ‘scientists’ with ‘Asians’ might have him suspended from the faculty at Illinois State University. It got to the point where I kept expecting arguments to be prefaced by a paraphrasing of the old vituperative racist’s standby: “Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are scientists, but…”

It is not that White’s criticisms are entirely without merit – indeed, many of his individual targets are well chosen. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens can, as White pointedly observes, be overbearing and un-necessarily dogmatic in their commentary. Likewise, Sebastian Seung and others in the public vanguard of neuroscience do often lapse across the dividing line between science communication and science fiction. And yes, I’m comfortable conceding White’s point that many scientists – even very good ones – are probably mediocre to appalling poets, falling at the first hurdle when trying to use evocative language and imagery to capture the beauty and nuance of their work.

At the same time though, I don’t get a sense that White is looking to establish a level playing field in these regards – there is certainly no indication he would expect a poet writing on the nature of life and the universe to have a firm grasp of virology or particle physics.

Such uneven treatment is a notable and distracting element throughout the text. White calls to Tom Waits lyrics, pop culture movies, and novels as sources of rhetorical strength in his own writing, but would deny his antagonists any written form not as formally codified and structured as the 19th century German philosphical treatises he is so fond of.

White is also quick to point out sloppy structure and inadequate definition of terms in the writing of those he seeks to criticize…but then takes equal liberties himself, and all too readily forgives the linguistic sins of those whose work he would co-opt to his purposes. He takes umbrage, for example, with Jim Watkins’ description of humans as ‘products’ of evolution – suggesting with a sniff of derision that such terminology places us on a par with the output of some cosmic factory conveyor belt. A virtually identical linguistic allusion, however – the world being a ‘product’ of the self in Schelling’s philosophical arguments – is then later adopted by White himself without comment.

Such uneven handling might be forgivable in an undergraduate thesis, but White is a career wordsmith – a novelist, essayist, and academic. He obviously cares about, and has considerable mastery of, the English language – continually waving the flag for well-structured and elegant communication throughout this book – so such double standards are at best sloppy, and at worst self-serving hypocrisy.

With his fundamental thesis stretched painfully thin and his narrative structure riddled with such inconsistencies, White frequently over-reaches in seeking to generalize his individual criticisms to a comprehensive attack on the essence of science – as where he argues that because a scientist (specifically in this instance, neuroscientist Seung) has produced a bad philosophical argument, science cannot relate to philosophy or art. The logical corollary of this is that if Salman Rushdie burns the toast, writing can have no relationship to cooking.

If scientific writers and commentators have failed to appreciate the artistic and sociological implications of their ideas – and rest assured, many have – it is because of their personal inadequacies, not because of anything to do with the nature of science. There is no ‘Science Pope’ sitting on a throne issuing encyclicals about how scientists should relate to other ideas and viewpoints.

When he writes that Christopher Hitchens “reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes…[ignoring] virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship”, White himself willfully overlooks the contextual framing of Hitchens’ writing. Hitchens is not offering up this critique of religion de novo, but as a deliberate counterpoint to the historically promulgated view that we should think only of the positive philosophical and sociological functions of religion, and ignore the darker side of its use as a justification for war, social injustice, and other abuses.

Hitchens and Dawkins are not writing to engage with the enlightened philosophers and thinkers of the world. The two are the bulldogs of the humanist viewpoint deliberately setting out to take on and worry the one eyed commentators expounding conservative religious polemics and attempting to dominate the cultural airwaves. Rather than taking the moral high ground by constructing an artful, comprehensive and syntactically complete thesis and sitting back to watch it be ignored or misrepresented by their opponents, they plunge in with the rhetoric of broad engagement – taking on their intellectual opponents in hand-to-hand combat.

I might not approve of everything Dawkins says, but I am grateful for his occupation of this position. Dawkins is the Charles Bronson of scientific writers – an enforcer out there brawling in the street to control the baying mob so the rest of us can get on with our work.

By far the most distracting of White’s narrative straw men though is his placement of words into the mouths of his intellectual sparring partners to make them into obvious cartoonish buffoons, so that he can then ride to the rhetorical rescue with a devastating rejoinder. Yes, I know the Socratic dialogue (an imagined discussion with a naive or foolish companion) is a valid and effective rhetorical device with a long and rich history in Philosophy – one I appeal to myself on occasion. I’m just not sure that Socrates ever used the approach to so transparently belittle his contemporaries or score cheap personal points. Fundamentally, to paraphrase US Senator Lloyd Bensen in his 1988 Vice-presidential debate smack-down of Dan Quayle: Professor White, you’re no Socrates.

Putting foolish words into the mouth of your opponent does not enhance your own intellectual credibility. Reproduced from Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, originally published January 18th, 1987.

Putting foolish words into the mouth of your opponent does not enhance your own intellectual credibility. Reproduced from Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, originally published January 18th, 1987.

Behind the claims to an intellectual high ground, White’s true motivation perhaps emerges as something closer to sour grapes in a series of unguarded comments around the demarcation he sees between science and what he would stake out as his own home ground – art and literature.

He criticises Hitchens’ “privileged position on the New York Times best-seller list” as if this was some hereditary title Hitchens had unfairly usurped from its rightful holder, and complains of science “being given every kind of opportunity to make its case to the public, including high-tech presentations and best selling books”, while philosophers sit unread and unremarked upon on unvisited library shelves. White seems to imagine there are an endless array of publishers and TV commissioning editors beating down the door of theoretical physicists desperate for new books on their work and its relationship to the fabric of reality. In the real world though, I’m afraid that if Schelling and his fellow academic philosophers can’t get their own TV series, its not because those nasty scientists have formed a cabal to dominate the Western cultural conversation and black listed them.

In seeking to establish the boundaries between the qualities of art and science, White speaks of transcendence – but his framing of the term is deeply flawed. His juxtaposition of Beethoven with the industrial design team at Proctor and Gamble is manifestly ludicrous (although not as over the top as his analogy of the company motto “GE: Imagination at work” with the historically laden Nazi concentration camp slogan “arbeit macht frei”). Under such a framing we might equally compare Isaac Newton with George Formby to establish (with apologies to fans of “When I’m Cleaning Windows”) a countervailing majestry of science over art.

If ‘art’ is the common factor, White would lump together the good, bad and indifferent – Beethoven, Picasso, and Hitchcock with internet memes and LOL cats. It is actually the transcendence of genius of which his examples speak, and I would be far more generous than White in my attribution of this to other fields. Contrary to his criticism, there is unquestionably a form of genius in convincing an already overweight, well-fed consumer that they really want to eat a hamburger right now. Or in convincing an intelligent human being to take up a habit like smoking when they know it will shorten and decrease the quality of their life. Yes, it may be an evil genius…but genius, none the less.

White’s view ultimately comes across as narrowly bourgeois – creation is only worthwhile if it occurs in the critical space occupied by he and his coterie. Things that touch, move, or inspire the masses are worthless. We (I would happily include myself among White’s great unwashed masses) are not even allowed to appreciate and value art unless it’s for the reasons he wants us to. According to White the ‘wrong’ view of art “is the assumption now even of arts councils and, as far as I know, the artists they fund.”

The artists they fund? Did I mention the odour of sour grapes?

Wow. So now its not just the scientists, but a conspiracy running right to the heart of the all-powerful arts council Illuminati! Did White have Dan Brown ghost write this chapter?

With presumably unintended irony, the nature of what I would define as science is actually not far removed from White’s phrasing of Schiller’s definition of art: “It refuses the world as something already determined…[offering] a welcoming openness to change”.

I find myself suspecting that a much more positive contribution to public discourse could have been laid on this foundation, but if White’s fundamental drive is to encourage active thought and challenging of ideas in society, this book has probably done a good job of alienating a substantial slice of his potential constituency – namely those critical thinkers who would describe themselves as scientists.

Therein lies the tragedy of this work – I know I’m not White’s target audience…but I could have been. There are many areas in which I have some sympathy with White. I share his appreciation for the Romantic spirit – with the best art (like the best science) to be found in the overturning of paradigms, and the challenging of comfortable authorities.

And when he can rise above the vitriol and histrionics, he’s a good writer – even with a pleasingly dry sense of humour. Anyone who can skewer his opponent’s philosophical knowledge with the pithy “Dawkins knows sweet nothing about Foucault” has my utmost respect. Yes, this does rely on a mispronunciation of Foucault, but I imagine you’re there well ahead of me on this one.

Part of me even thinks it might well be enjoyable to share a bottle of good wine with White and talk about his ideas…but in the face of his espoused views on scientists, I fear this might be a bit like Louis Armstrong sitting down for a chat with Benito Mussolini – a big fan of jazz music according to his son Romano, but otherwise unlikely to have much common ground with the great African-American musician.

At the end of all the analysis I find myself left, disappointingly, as Bart – the hero of Blazing Saddles – looking on bemused from the sideline as White crow dances and sings his minstrel song of science – ultimately showing more about his own biased views than offering any kind of serious analysis.

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