Simon Jenkins Versus The ‘Bishops’ of Science (Mad Journalist Syndrome – Part 2)

Back in February, I wrote this blogpost in response to a Simon Jenkins opinion piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, in which he accused scientists of scaremongering over the swine flu pandemic. My particular issue with the article (I had many) was Jenkins’ suggestion that because things didn’t turn out as badly as they could have, then we should have ignored ‘scientists’ and played it safe (that was the benefit of hindsight unironically extolled by Jenkins there). To me, Jenkins’ suggestion completely missed the point. The precautions taken to deal with the pandemic were for ‘potential’ danger – no-one could know for sure exactly what would happen, it was what ‘could’ happen that mattered. It was a weighing up of risk. The whole of Jenkins’ piece seemed motivated more by an irrational hatred of scientists than out of any reasonable or rational concern. It was not the first time Jenkins had done this either (see here, here and here) – the piece was just one in a long line of anti-science rants which Jenkins seems to randomly publish in the otherwise science-friendly Guardian, like taking a shit in the middle of a gateau.

Well, he’s done it again.The warning signs are there: the labelling of a multitude of scientific professions and people as a sinister, elitist cabal working behind the scenes like lab-based illuminati; the relentless and paranoid derision of anything remotely science-based; the palpable fear that ‘scientists’ have evil designs against the human race… It’s pure Jenkins by numbers. He even managed to get his own twitter trend this time around. Last Monday was “Spoof Jenks Monday“, when people used the hashtag #spoofjenks to post exaggeratedly anti-science comments, such as “Computers would work just as well powered by Ballet as Electricity”. The idea started with Jennifer Rohn at her blog and snowballed from there, as these twitter-things tend to do. You can read all the #spoofjenks comments at said blog.

So what’s got Jenkins’ luddite goat this time? The title of his latest rant is:

“Martin Rees makes a religion out of science so his bishops can gather their tithe.”

Hurrah! Already we have the accusation that science is just another religion and that scientists are its blinkered bishops forcing their worldview on the plebs! This idea that science is just another worldview (despite not even being a worldview – it’s a method) is a familiar form of dopey thinking usually espoused by religious apologists, and creationists especially. Make everything seem relative and it renders your position unassailable, no matter how asinine. Not that I think Jenkins is approaching this in a pro-religion way. I don’t think he’s doing that at all. He just doesn’t like scientists. I suspect he had a bad experience watching Frankenstein as a child. Either that or his opinion pieces have just been one long joke for the purposes of skeptical research. I live in hope…

Next, we have this sub-heading:

“The BBC’s reverence for genes, space and bugs gives its Reith lecturer a claim to public money based on faith, not reason.”

The religious accusations just keep flying. No ‘reason’ here, claims Jenkins, just ‘reverence’ and ‘faith’. He seems to think that if he throws enough of these words around then maybe reality will rearrange itself in response to suit him. Well, it worked for Neo, I suppose… The article proper begins by mentioning a bio-medical centre due to be built in London, which will cost £600m and house about 1,250 “cutting-edge” scientists. The inverted commas are Jenkins’ own. Not sure why he’s put them in there; maybe he thinks there’s no such thing as a “cutting-edge” scientist, or that these particular scientists are only “flat-middle”. All that’s clear is that Jenkins thinks you can’t trust those damn scientists. Also, if we were to question the value of this building, science would apparently ‘jeer at the idea’, because, of course, biomedicine has no concern with value, nor provides any benefit for the human race. Jenkins then claims that this building has been dubbed:

“… a cathedral of science, justified by faith, not reason.”

I think he’s quoting himself here. There’s no way to tell. I am lost in an emotive soup.

I don’t know how employing 1,250 people and providing important advances in biomedicine lacks reason, but then I’m just a deluded lamb due to be sacrificed on the altar of science. However, none of this matters because Jenkins then forgets about this building. Having informed us that science is a religion and got us suitably frothing at the mouth about an apparent expensive waste of taxpayers’ money, Jenkins then pulls a bait-and-switch and moves on to his real concern (did I mention that Jenkins has a knighthood for services to journalism?).

Jenkins’ beef is with the Reith lectures, particularly this year’s involving Martin Rees, astronomer and president of the Royal Society. The lectures are a yearly event, broadcast on the BBC, where known faces in the world of science give public lectures. This is Jenkins’ description of the lectures:

“Each year the BBC gestures towards high seriousness by getting a celebrity intellectual to muse in public for four hours. Ennui is relieved with a chatty preamble from Sue Lawley, followed by safe, hand-picked questions and no nasty supplementaries. The whole thing has the air of a Soviet academy.”

So the Russians are the bad guys again? It must be ‘old Bond movie week’. I love the way that the BBC showing a science program can only be ‘gesturing’ towards seriousness. I wonder at what point the BBC is actually allowed to be genuinely serious. Is there a numerical rule at play? One science programme a month: not serious enough. Two science programmesa month: serious. Three to a hundred science programmes a month: gesture towards high seriousness.

I love Jenkins’ seeming objection to the idea of people ‘musing’ in public. Maybe he’s worried that some of those dangerous thoughts might leave the stage and take root in the minds of the science-worshipping acolytes in the audience. He also objects to the ‘safe, hand-picked questions’. Maybe every audience member should get the opportunity to ask a question then, Simon? Unfortunately, that would make the programme last about a week, and Jenkins already doesn’t like it at four hours. I suspect Jenkins is just upset because he’s not hearing the questions that he would like to hear asked (probably due to the fact that poorly-informed anti-science questions don’t make it through screening). The next paragraph would seem to suggest that this is indeed Jenkins’ stance:

“He [Martin Rees] spoke of the BBC’s current craze – anything to do with science. The airwaves are crammed with science quizzes, science chatshows, science magazines and science feedback. News must have science stories, the Today programme science items, all reverential. No scepticism is admitted to this new orthodoxy.”

Well, here’s some skepticism, Simon (albeit with our usual ‘k’), and it’s the proper stuff: not your denialist, contrarian excuse for it. Skepticism isn’t about deliberately disagreeing with whatever the scientific consensus is on an issue. It’s about objectivity, or getting as close to it as you can get. Saying that climate change, BSE and swine flu aren’t that big a deal, as you have done in the past, simply because that’s the opposite of what your boogeymen, the ‘scientists’, are saying, is not skepticism. Skepticism is about dealing with facts, and there’s nothing to suggest this ‘religion of science’ that your are so worried about. The only faith on show here seems to be your own in the duplicity of science.

He continues:

“Rees is shameless. After a brisk, familiar canter through the wonder of science – internet, genomes, bugs, space travel – his last lecture brought him to the matter in hand. Science, he said, should “engage more broadly with society and public affairs”. In other words, it should get more money. There is nowhere better to plead for this than on the BBC.”

The only direct quote he gives from Rees here, is that science should “engage more broadly with society and public affairs”. The stuff about Rees trying to grab money for science is purely Jenkins’ speculation. So it’s a bit sad to find that the rest of the piece is about this supposed religious crusade of the ‘scientists’ to get money and waste it. Then he has the gall to blame it on Rees right in the piece’s title, despite the poor bloke simply having had the bad luck to be name-dropped by a man with a chip on his shoulder about men and women who wear lab coats.

The rest of the piece has such Jenkins gems as:

“Science gives us an exaggerated fear of risk.”

“Scientists do not do priorities, they just want money.”

“The £7bn spent on the LHC would have been better spent on energy research.”

“The science lobby is a religion, and Rees is one of its archbishops.”

“The BBC lavishes it [science] with favours against less-fashionable claimants.”

Ok, so maybe science is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the public eye at the moment. Good. It is not a faceless religious cult intent on stealing public money and throwing it away on frivolities. It encompasses a multitude of disciplines, knowledge areas, and has many different uses. Above all, it is already intertwined with society and public affairs. It is important. Planes, television, medicine, space travel, it is all science. It moves us on as a species, it helps us live longer. It is not a waste of money. The money spent on science does not spiral down a black hole: it employs thousands of people in labs and in the field, it employs thousands more to build those labs and the technology that goes in them. The discoveries that come out of said labs lead to new uses and technologies. So the LHC is a waste of money? I read Jenkins’ piece on the internet. The internet started out as a databank for CERN.

Science is an essential part of the world. It needs money, just like anything else, and asking for money does not make it religious. Once again, Jenkins has simply let his dislike for scientists skew his interpretation of the facts. He has repeatedly done this. I think this is a bad thing for science journalism, which is already suffering neglect in the mainstream press. So often are scientists portrayed as distant boffins fiddling about in labs with no concern for the human race, making mistakes and making it up. The reality is that scientists are part of the human race not seperate from it, and until certain strains of journalism grow up a little and treat science subjects more rationally, then the public at large is going to keep getting fed this blinkered and false view of the reality of science.

It is not good enough.

, , ,

  1. #1 by Sel on July 4, 2010 - 23:45

    Excellent article Colin – this guy needs a slap down.

  2. #2 by paul freeman on July 5, 2010 - 10:52

    I agree:
    Arts vs. science : arts has held sway for far too long in the media. About time the boot was on the other foot.

  3. #3 by John on July 6, 2010 - 10:26

    Hi – YKnow just because we do not like his conclusions thats not really reason to dismiss all his arguments.

    Martin Rees is plugging for money in science and is therefore not an impartial commentator. Simon Jenkins points that out. Fair enough.

    The whole ‘science as a religion’ thing may just be the limited comprehension of someone who cannot get away from a religous world view. By saying that they mange to fit us into the limited world that they understand.

  4. #4 by Colin H on July 6, 2010 - 13:39

    To John,

    The problem is that Jenkins’ piece is all conclusion and no argument. Rees simply makes the case for science engaging more broadly with society. Considering how distant Jenkins himself seems to be from real science, I think Rees has a point. Jenkins then takes Rees’ comment and turns it into something it is not, along the way making up a lot of nonsense that has no connection to anything Rees originally said or with the Reith lectures themselves.

    In fact, there is no reason for Rees to be included in the article at all. If Jenkins had simply written his own opinion on science-funding I might not have bothered responding, but he used it as an excuse to be wilfully vicious towards someone who simply had the misfortune to become an unwitting real life strawman in Jenkins’ latest rant. Within the article Rees gets called ‘two-faced’ and ‘shameful’ simply for being a scientist who might – shock, horror – be in favour of science getting funding. I just found the whole thing quite unpleasant.

    With regard to the ‘science as a religion’ aspect, I genuinely think Jenkins simply hasn’t thought through what he is saying properly. It sounds knee-jerk to me, which is a shame as he would probably know better if he just stopped and thought briefly about what he was actually saying.

  5. #5 by Susan on July 18, 2010 - 12:28

    I listen to the Reith lectures and I enjoyed everyone of them. So up with Martin Rees and down with Simon Jenkins.

(will not be published)