A question for gentle reader. Have you been asked to “follow the science” lately? I mean any science, to anywhere. The question is not necessarily party-political.
Speaking only for myself, under lockdown from politicians, vigilant neighbors, and a mild winter up here in Ontario (I think there has been more snow in Texas), I consult the Internet only for hints of what is going on. It is an utterly unreliable source of information, but often it is the only source. I spend too much time on it, distracted from the books I should be reading all day.
What a relief when I return to a book, for I have quite a solid, well-stocked library up here. I might not even turn on my computer, were I not contributing to the chaos by writing my (almost daily) “Essays in Idleness.” (Here.) Some people have told me they rely on it to stay sane, so it might be cruel to stop.
But there, on the Internet, in various, frequent ways, I am told to “follow the science.” I’ve noticed that actual scientists seldom say that; rather, in my judgment, the followers of scientism – who, knowing almost no science themselves, persist in the belief that science has all the answers.
This does not come only from the Left, or only from enthusiasts for (unproven) muzzles and social distancing. The Right also claims to have science on their side, and I read blogs that “follow the science” the other way. They seize on anything with the appearance of science that contradicts the Batflu enforcers.
Sometimes this is useful. Today, as in the past, I must read both sides, to see what each has omitted. The pretense of objectivity, rarely very plausible, would seem to have shrunk into non-existence. As a (forcibly retired) hack journalist, I find myself struggling for a bubble of fresh air.
Yet even when I’m reading reports on “pure science” – that is, scientific findings that seem to have no political significance at all – I feel encroaching glibness.
Most scientific journalists are mediocre writers, at their best, and miss what a specialist would find most interesting. This is because they do not really understand the background of their topic, and because they are trying to “grab eyeballs” that might quickly roll away. There are distracting “links” scattered across almost every electronic page.
They may not be poisonously biased; but a partiality towards getting facts straight might nevertheless improve their general attitude.
And then there are the “refereed” scientists themselves. These write incomprehensibly, in jargon-riddled papers which a dozen of them may sign. As what they publish is a means of career advancement, I don’t trust even what I can’t understand.
They are just not CAMOUFLEURS.
This is a word I picked up in youth, from the marine biologist, Alister C. Hardy. He wrote the two volumes of The Open Sea, the first appearing in 1956. It is an account of what we know about what swims in our wide oceans, from the minutest plankton to the grandest whales, from the surface ripples to the profoundest depths, and all their myriad ecological relations. Every sentence represents solid, demonstrable fact: many the product of Hardy’s own discoveries.
It is not only a work I have treasured since late childhood. Many decades later it is still a fund of basic knowledge from which any intelligent reader could benefit.
Hardy was also a superb illustrator, and his depictions of the creatures, always better than photographs, remain current to the present day.
A “camoufleur” was the designer of military camouflage, a job Hardy once did as a young soldier, around a century ago. They were a curious tribe. He used the word in an expanded sense, to include those equally attracted to science and art, who are able to combine vocations.
The one is not a decoration for the other; both are essential. They keep the student of nature focused on living animals, and plants, not on collecting dead things in bottles.
Normally, I cannot stand a prattling Darwinist, but Hardy’s Darwinism was so eccentric that I would willingly have had him to tea. He used Darwinist cliches through his professorship at Oxford, but privately in his notes, and after his retirement, he entertained some fairly extravagant ideas. He saw connections between things that defied all material explanation, yet were intrinsic to any evolutionary process. He could not confine his interests to the treadmill cage.
For instance, it was Hardy who, quietly, launched the “aquatic ape thesis.” This came from his observation that humans, uniquely among land animals, stored body fat right under their skin. In this unusual way, a man was like a pinniped; he had more in common with a walrus than with any monkey in the bush. Manatees and mermaids were two of a kind.
We took off our fur coats, as it were, but retained our meat and blubber as we, hypothetically, emerged from the sea.
I’ve never subscribed to this, and neither did Hardy. But it was the product of a mind genuinely searching. More, it was a mind able to accept the miraculous, without trauma.
In later life, Hardy founded an institute for the study of religious experience, which survives to this day. Science and religion could not merely cross-fertilize; they were different ways of viewing the same cosmos; just as art and science cannot exclude each other.
We may begin to shake off our cheapest biases, and our most lethal mediocrities, when we return to that “global” appreciation of knowledge – which, in the course of inventing modern science, the (medieval) Catholic Church inspired. That things will make sense, we intuited from our Maker.
But beyond this, a true faith in a reality that is not glib. Religion requires serious art, as our Church once understood; it also requires science and philosophy. Discovery starts in childhood, but as Saint Paul said, it shouldn’t end there.
*Image: Waves Breaking against the Wind by J.M.W. Turner, 1840 [Tate, London]