The planets, I learned when I was 11, “dance and weave behind the sun”.
I still remember that phrase because it made an enormous impression on me. It was magical. Musical. Mythical. And, of course, made up. But I didn’t know that until years later.
In that moment I pictured an immense and fiery Pied Piper playing a thermonuclear recorder, leading a string of little planets on a merry jig through the cosmos. It’s such a fantastic image that it remains with me today, lingering as a small doubt about the veracity of the science I learned later. When I see Mercury or Mars on a dark midnight, a pagan, feral part of me wonders if the other planets are lined up behind them, ready to start the night’s wild rumpus.
This weekend a less dramatic but much more real procession took place in cities around the world. The “March for Science” saw the more rationally inclined hit the streets to protest against Trumpian know-nothingry, the perceived sidelining of science and the woolly mammoth in the room, climate change.
Inevitably, the various marches seem to have been good-natured affairs.
In my very limited experience, scientists tend not to want to impose themselves or their ideas on people the way politicians and columnists do. Dogmatic certainty is fundamentally unscientific, and a march by scientists always runs the risk of unravelling into a large group of solitary wanderers licking their thumbs and rubbing out things on whiteboards: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? Well, the question of ‘when’ is tricky because it seems predicated on time being linear, which it isn’t, and when you say ‘want’, are you claiming that humans are the conscious originators of our desires or are you allowing for the possibility that we might be compelled by social structures or hormonal commands originating in the gut? Oh, you want science now? OK, well, ‘now’ is a contested idea but could we suggest that, given what the peer-reviewed literature currently shows, we believe that we want science to happen at the event horizon of the future into which we are always tumbling? Is that fair?”
Still, they made their point. Reflected in their clever banners and glittering logic I saw my own dismal scientific education. I saw people I admired but whom I could not understand because I had been taught that our solar system is a conga line.
Siyabulela Xuza launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen
Then again, when I consider the extraordinary trajectory of Siyabulela Xuza, who launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen in the Eastern Cape – inventing a new kind of rocket fuel en route to studying at Harvard and having an asteroid named after him – I have to concede that I might not be able to lay all the blame on my education. Maybe some people are just good at science and other people are, well, me.
Which would be fine if those of us who are not good at science just touched our forelocks and accepted its findings. But, as the marchers hoped to remind us, we’re doing that less and less.
The vast intellectual unravelling of the post-factual era has reached the very building blocks of the known universe.
With depressing regularity, the great equations of physics are being met and dismissed with a vastly more powerful and destructive equation: the creeping belief that everything is an opinion, and, since all opinions are equally valuable (or worthless), everything is equally true. The Earth is round? Well that’s just your opinion, man, and if you tell me I’m wrong then you’re bullying me.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that science is under severe attack. But, unfortunately, I don’t think you can be a rocket scientist and defend it, either. In fact, scientists might be the worst possible defenders of science because they are comfortable with uncertainty and are willing to admit what they don’t know. When a know-nothing tells them that up is down, they will have to reply, “You may turn out to be right, but at the moment, up is up.” Which, to an internet-addled paranoiac, sounds like unconditional surrender.
It’s popular to label anti-scientists as stupid or rage-addicted reactionaries, but I believe that they are driven by a much more powerful, and therefore much more dangerous, energy. I believe that they are compelled to act as they do by the deep and ancient narcissism of our collective inner child.
Almost every great claim our species has made over the millennia has been made to soothe that child, to make the bad feelings go away. There, there, little one. The sun revolves around you. Death isn’t final. An immortal parent (who will never leave you) made all of this, just for you, and loves you, always. And anyone who says different is a meanie and probably deserves to be hit.
Like a spoiled child, the anti-scientist is always right, even if older and wiser people show him that he is wrong. Their evidence is proof of how wrong they are. You are not wrong because I disagree with your findings: you are wrong because you disagree with my feelings.
If you’re a scientist, I thank you. I don’t understand what you do, but I do understand what will happen if you stop doing it. And conga lines are the least of it.
Published in The Times