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Scientists: Getting to know our moral and intellectual superiors better

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In “Beware the Fausts of Neuroscience” (Standpoint, April 2012), George Walden

April 2012), former minister for science George Walden writes,

Had I been able to rely on scientists themselves for rational and detached advice — what else are they for? — things would have been simpler, but my impressions of those I met convinced me of two things: their awesome intelligence and real achievements, but in some cases an equally awesome propensity to overweening ambition and incurable condescension towards the common man.

I arrived with my own prejudices. As a diplomatic specialist in Communism, in China and the Soviet Union I had witnessed at first hand the biggest live experiment in history, as more than a billion human beings, caged in their own countries like laboratory mice, were subjected to the parascientific creed of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism. (The term parascience, nicely evocative of paranormal and la pataphysique, I borrow from Absence of Mind, essays on science and religion by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010.) Of the outcome — some hundred million dead, three million in China during 1966-69 the years I was there — there is little more to be said, except to recall how many Western scientists, some eminent, went along with the experiment in the face of the scepticism of Johnson’s common reader.

One example. Professor J.D. Bernal, a first-rank scientist, helped lay the foundations of molecular biology. Inspired by Nikolai Bukharin’s lecture on the Marxist roots of Newton, he had earlier endorsed the “proletarian science” of Trofim Lysenko, whose theory of plant genetics Stalin backed because it suggested that the acquired characteristics of the communist New Man could be transmitted in perpetuity. Bukharin was later shot in the show trials of 1938 after torture extracted a confession; Bernal survived till 1971, when he died peacefully, proud of his Stalin Prize, and with no confession.

Of course, most prominent scientists are not like this. But some are. It pays to know. And one of the vices of scientism is the airbrush.

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