If you’re not regularly listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC Radio 4 show about science hosted by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, then you are an execrable excuse for a human specimen and I despise every molecule in your worthless body.
Sorry. Bit harsh. I don’t mean that. But you should listen to it, it’s really good. There’s a free podcast. Go on, try it.
The latest episode featured, among other guests, comedian Katy Brand. She wasn’t by any means anti-science, but she may have thought that the others on the show sometimes went a bit far with their ideas on science’s scope and importance. For instance, when Brian Cox described science as:
the means by which we… come to the best possible view, given the available data and the understanding of a particular issue or question,
she thought this should be amended to “the best possible scientific view”. Brian disagreed, and I’m basically on his side; when it comes to establishing the correctness of facts about the world, any view that hasn’t been reached scientifically doesn’t even seem worth considering. But Katy Brand was making a more thoughtful point than the tedious post-modern idea of science just being “one belief system among many”, all equally valid.
She told a story about someone she knew of, who’d always start the day by reading her horoscope. This person didn’t believe in any of the nonsense often put forward to justify astrology, and was well aware it was bunk, but tended to find that:
If I read my horoscope in the morning, I have a better day.
It was an entirely psychological effect, as well this person knew, but it was a real one. Katy thought that this was something which science can’t really involve itself in. Science misses the fact that “people find ways of pragmatically getting through their day… and science doesn’t have to be involved in that”.
She’s partly right. But science does have a responsibility to be involved to some extent. It is sort of obliged to point out that astrology is bunk. But the person Katy was telling this story about knows that it’s bunk. She and science are in complete accord there. If she’s not claiming anything implausibly supernatural, but is merely acting in a way she’s discovered benefits her, then rationality is completely on her side. Science isn’t going to snatch the newspaper out of her hand. Some scientists might not appreciate people’s pragmatic attempts to deal with the world at large, but science itself has no problems with it.
One of the other guests a little later brought up another point about the unique power of science to help us understand the world – it was either geneticist Steve Jones or other geneticist Paul Nurse, I’m afraid I’m not sure whose voice it was. At any rate, somebody brought up some some interesting data:
Children who are born in July and August… are worse at athletics, do less well in school, and have a higher rate of suicide than children born at other times of the year.
As the links in that paragraph explain, we have some ideas about why this might be. Primarily, it’s to do with the fixed cut-off point for being placed in a particular school year. Given that a new batch of children ascends to each new grade level once a year, the youngest in each class will be nearly a full twelve months younger than their oldest fellows. This can make a big difference to interaction among peers when you’re young, and results in some kids being disadvantaged in a number of unfair ways.
Katy Brand argued that, valid though the scientific explanation for this state of affairs may be, “it doesn’t help that individual person cope with the fact of their birth”. They might need a “different solution” to the problems they face – such as, presumably, reading their nonsense horoscopes.
The final edit of the show didn’t really respond to this in a way I found satisfying, which is why I’ve written all this and dragged you through this whole tedious escapade. The horoscope-reader Katy mentioned earlier is not at all at odds with a scientific approach, as I described. She may have been arguing that some people need to believe their horoscopes, as some kind of emotional crutch, which I don’t agree with at all. I certainly support a humane understanding of why some people might feel that way, but science still has a responsibility to improve the accuracy of our collective worldview as best it can, and calling out the bunk of astrology is a necessary part of that.
But, perhaps more importantly, I’d argue that being scientific is the most useful way we can help people who’ve been disadvantaged by, say, this birth-month school business. Because once we understand what’s going on, then we have the capacity to examine how the system can be improved, and come up with ways to effect real change.
If we guessed it was because of their star sign, and didn’t use science to work out the answer, then our ability to help make anything better for anyone is seriously impaired. If we’d kept assuming illness is caused by demonic influence, we’d have no modern medicine; it doesn’t help a sick person cope with the fact of their smallpox for science to tell them that there are these tiny invisible things called “viruses” inside them, but science can unquestionably help in a way nothing else can.
In conclusion, we should all be listening to more Radio 4. It’s quite entertaining, even if you don’t believe in Sandi Toksvig.