A pact with evil truth

SCIENCE is a double-edged sword, as curative as a missionary and incomprehensibly barbaric in more or less equal measure. After decades of rampant scientism, there is now a perception that it is deeply and irretrievably dehumanising, a Faustian pact with the devil.

Galileo was imprisoned 400 years ago because his scientific findings stood an unquestionable and powerful theological worldview on its head; since then, what has not changed a whit is science's radical ability to undermine values, to challenge established society's very selfhood. This unpredictability lies at the heart of the collective fear of science, and has led to a situation where, today, half of the USA's population is reacting against Darwinism.

Wolpert's book seeks to separate a scientific mode of thought from everyday commonsense. Recognising the validity and the inevitability of such a distinction could correct misunderstandings about science's basic nature -- that it is as rigorous, qualitative, non-subjective and bias-free as human nature will allow. Wolpert draws upon the history of science from Aristotle to Einstein, from Thales of Miletus to Watson and Crick, from Mendel and Darwin to biotechnology to explain the fundamental differences between science and technology, scientific and artistic creativity. He shows how psychoanalysis is wanting in rigour, and why science and religious faith are incompatible.

He also tackles the agonising ethical questions of science's penchant for invasiveness and violence, including the inherent violence of reason. Using the history of the atomic bomb and eugenics, he argues that the many ostensibly "new" ethical problems are reflections of a failure to comprehend what science means. The public sees science through the blinkers of some perverse deviations: the Frankensteins and the Brave New Worlds; in its head, Prometheus is still being punished for the fire he brought to earth and Faust for his compact with the Devil.

Wolpert arranges a formidable intellectual battery for a passionate defence of science, without covering up its ruthlessness: science tolerates no magic, allows no pervasive sense of a restrictive divinity or of economics; and its excuses no failures. He hammers home the point that science is our best hope for solving problems, even if it is uncomfortable to live with. Today, when railing against science is academically de rigueur, the author makes sure his lone dissenting voice is heard loud and clear.