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Science isn’t dull…

Tom Chivers is on top form at the Telegraph.

God help me I have met such ignoramuses.

And yes, I use that term advisedly. My take on Chiver’s piece is not that everyone ought to know science but that it is bizarre – and I think very British – for people to revel in their ignorance of science. Oh, I’ve met them. Arts students mainly. The attitude of some of them – not all by any standard – to science is shocking. They seem to think scientists are dull, unimaginative plodders who do something hard and essentially mysterious. They also don’t see science, technology or engineering as “sexy” or “creative”. They see us as sex-less beasts who lack an ability to understand the arts. Well, I read novels, listen to music, visit galleries and have pulled fit birds so…

Anyway, discuss.

NickM (BSc Physics – Nottingham, MSc Astrophysics – London).

PS: Update. Link fixed. Thanks Mr Ed!


  1. Mr Ed says:

    Link doesn’t seem to work, but this is it:

    The mentality is part of the cult of ignorance cultivated by socialists.

  2. razorbacker says:

    Art is based on preference and opinion, science is based on fact. You are entitled to your own opinion. Facts, damn them, are stubborn things unmindful of my preference or opinion or prejudice.

    Much sweeter to live in the world of art, rather than the world of science.

  3. razorbacker says:

    Arts are based on preference and opinion. You are entitled to your own. Science, damn it for being so, is based on facts. Facts are resistant to my preference and opinion and prejudice.

    Much sweeter to live in the world of art.

  4. NickM says:

    Thans Mr Ed… But I don’t think this is directly linked to socialism at all.

  5. Mr Ed says:

    @Nick Matthew Arnold, sneering bureaucrat claiming culture as a high virtue, despising trade and science as they bettered and made possible the lives of millions, andmade many richer than he. Whilst scientists can read poems, a poet qua poet is baffled by science.

  6. NickM says:

    So explain to me why the most left-wing personage I ever did know was a (pretty good) applied mathematician?

    I’m not being snarky but I just don’t see the connection between political beliefs and scientific tendencies or aptitude.

  7. Mr Ed says:

    On the subject of science, here is Sir John Gurdon, 2012 Nobel Laureate in Physiology talking about his work and life, at 17:30 he talks about his appalling science teaching at Eton, which branded teaching him science as a waste of time, and 21:04 what inspires him, learning something new, in contrast to the joys of (re) translating.

  8. Mr Ed says:

    @NickM I did not state that there was such a link, and I would not.

    Just because a person who dislikes and/or is no good at science might be left wing, does not mean that a person who is left wing dislikes or is no good at science, mutatis mutandis for mathematics.

  9. TomO says:

    Agree!! To my mind – volunteering ignorance is admirable when coupled with a desire to be enlightened (even a bit) – but the sneery reveling in ignorance … arghh!

    Individuals are a blend of a whole bunch of things – but there is still a human need in a large proportion of the population to be part of a group and this can manifest in all sorts of truly odd ways – ritualistic elitism is especially appealing to many people and denigrating other folk is part of the game…

    Intelligence – and exactly what is that? I’m not convinced it’s related 1:1 with intellectual :-) Does “genius” inoculate against all stupidity? Can a person be an intellectual and stupid and arrogant and conceited at the same time?

    When this comes up I always think Sokal affair and the non hard sciences and… freshly minted, this glorious snippet nicked from Bishop Hill comments:

    St Andrews University Social Anthropology Department website.

    “COSMOPOLITAN STUDIES is an ontological project, endeavouring to define the human, its capacities and liabilities as universalities beyond the particular differences of social, cultural and historical condition.The Centre promotes an egalitarian, existentially sensitive, social science which seeks to place individual experience at the centre of an appreciation of contemporary social and cultural milieux, for the purpose of adumbrating the ethical space of the citizen in a plural and fluid society.”

    Scientists or flim-flam artists?

    hmm dull, unimaginative plodders who do something hard and essentially mysterious eh….

  10. RAB says:

    God bless yer gov, as soon as I saw that story I knew it was one for you!

    As far as scientific and political tendencies go, our Elites have since time immemorial believed in a “Classical” education. This used to mean mastering Greek and Latin. If you could hack them, then you could rule the world, and they looked down their noses at such grubby things as Trade, Industry and Manufacturing, the lifeblood of our Nation; they were aloof from all that. A degree in PPE is the modern equivelant for our ruling elite.

    And the fact is that Science and Maths are incredibly badly taught these days, so naturally students go for softer options, even if they involve Science. Hence my friend’s son wanting to save the Planet via “Environmental” Science, whatever the flying fuck that is! without mastering a pure science at all.

  11. dcardno says:

    As Isaac Asimov (IIRC) once observed, it is a funny thing that the common (and perhaps, self-claimed) definition of “intellectual” excludes the most taxing, rigourous, and productive application of the human intellect yet encountered…

  12. Old Owl says:

    As happens often, Kipling said it right:

  13. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    I think RAB is on the money here. I am reminded of the classic Yes Minister episode when the classically educated Sir Humphery is explaining something to the equally clueless Hacker about some chemical plant or other

    “No need to worry minister, this is an inert compound of dioxin”

    “So what does that mean?”

    “Er, well, it’s a compound that’s not, er…. ERT”


    Cameron ~ PPE, Oxford, Milliband ~ PPE, Oxford

    Brown ~ PPE, Oxford,

    Blair ~ Jurisprudence, Oxford, Michael Howard ~ Law, Cambridge, IDS ~ Sandhurst, Hague ~ PPE, Oxford

    Major ~ None, John Smith ~ Law, Glasgow, Kinnock ~ UC South Wales, Industrial relations !! Michael Foot ~ PPE, Oxford, James Callaghan ~ Civil servant (tax office!)

    A picture starts to emerge

    Thatcher was the last major party leader with a science degree.

  14. Mr Ed says:

    In one of his books, Inside the Soviet Army, I think, Victor Suvorov writes about the route to advancement in a socialist society, and in particular the Soviet Army.

    He noted that whilst the middle ranks were festooned with engineers and technicians, at the higher end, social scientists were to be found, he said that this was because, for advancement under socialism, it was necessary to learn ‘…how to talk smoothly…’ (i.e. to understand how to keep oneself on the right side of the higher powers, and to be politically correct).

  15. John Galt says:

    @Mr Ed:

    “for advancement under socialism, it was necessary to learn ‘…how to talk smoothly…’”

    Actually I would go further and suggest that the ability to follow actions from senior ranks (and therefore advance yourself) is a barrier in any bureaucratic organization, be it the Red Army of the Peoples Soviet or the UK Civil Service.

    Having a good engineering or scientific background requires a very rationalist approach and inconvenient facts certainly can’t be ignored. This is why the slimly types with their PPE’s and worst of all sociologists or ‘social scientists’ who are able to fit square pegs into round holes by an act of faith often succeed where more gifted and grounded personalities do not.

    By the way, don’t go over to Samizdata and start bitching about PPE-types as that has led to a bit of a flame war in the past as some of their key contributors are PPE-ers.

  16. CountingCats says:

    Damn, I read the same posting and was going to stick something up. Beat me to it, although that isn’t hard these days…..

    The mentality is part of the cult of ignorance cultivated by socialists.

    Can’t agree. Nothing to do with socialism at all. It is snobbery and nothing else. Those who are trained in the hi yarts seem to think their knowledge is superior to those who can merely count and twiddle knobs. That they can think this is evidence of the depth of their ignorance.

  17. CountingCats says:

    RAB @ 5:05

    Don’t knock the classical education. The United States Constitution was designed by men who were intimately familiar with the constitution of Rome, and how it evolved over the five hundred years of the Republics existence, and beyond.

    They explicitly modeled their document on this. Thing is, back then men of letters also knew engineering and how to count. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may have been extreme examples of this, but they were by no means unique.

    Today though, they are few and far between.

  18. LJH says:

    My biggest problem is people who study science and remain ignorant of the scientific method ie good quality data, reproducibility, falsifiability, the difference between correlation and causation, statistics…the list is longer : their ability to put narrative above facts has led us to the idiocies of AGW, the cynical sales by big pharma of marginally useful drugs, the hobbling of GM crops. Scepticism should be taught and practised. ( and don’t get me started on the cut and paste by journalists of press releases!)

  19. NickM says:

    Well, the one I can never get my head around is “social policy” which is not education but a degree – yes a degree and some “good” universities do it – in being a sort of junior Sir Humph. Obviously the perm secs etc did PPE or whatever. Anyway, apart from the implicit assumption (note the “policy” there) that the gubbermunt being meddlesome is what it is for there is also the fact I’ve never met any of them who had a Maths A-Level so their knowledge of their own weapon of choice – statistics – is woeful.

    I agree with Cats though. A classical education is also not to be ashamed of. What is to be ashamed of is the very idea that… Well, science is a victim of it’s own success. Lots of things such as the nature of human nature, societies, culture are suitable subjects to call themselves “sciences”. Freud believed in “penis envy”. I believe in “physics envy”. Actually Freud himself set-out to model his view on humanity after physics. He wanted to do to human behaviour what Newton had done to mechanics.

    And another thing. And a confession. I don’t think I made it clear as I ought to have done that I think the British snobbery against science is re-doubled for engineers. Engineers have high status in many countries but not here. In Norway or Germany or Japan, say, totally different. It’s a shame because grubby blokes tinkering in sheds having ideas make the World go round. And they are “blokes” in the Fred Dibnah-sense regardless of gender.

    But I’ll leave you with this thought. Recall the NYT once posited as fact that space-travel was impossible because there was nothing to push against in vile GCSE grade E pignorance of Newton’s third law.

  20. APL says:

    SAoT: “Brown ~ PPE, Oxford, ”

    HA! What more evidence do you need that the PPE is a stinker, if Broon can get one – WTF?

  21. Umbongo says:

    I think you’ll find that Brown read history at Edinburgh.

  22. RAB says:

    Yes indeed, Gurnin Gordon did read History, his thesis was on the rise of the Trade Union movement (no wonder the fiscal management of the UK was in such safe hands for 15 years eh?).

    Nope, no shame in having a Classics degree except that it completely ignores science and leaves the Classics graduate looking down their noses at mere number crunchers. Snobbishness indeed.

    Last time I looked, there was just one UK MP that has any hands on knowledge of any science discipline whatsoever. No wonder they blithely pass laws like the catastrophic Climate Change Act, which will shut down the UK economy entirely in order to comply with it, without a second thought or clue as to what the Science is or isn’t. They can’t even do the stats and sums, and a lot of the fuckers are supposed to have studied Economics.

    Yes John Galt, some of us remember the Samizdata PPE fracas well. I even left a comment or two on that one. All I will say is that if you did a Tripartite degree, any degree, when I was a student, then you were regarded as not being serious, but merely there for the booze and the birds. Because by the very logic of it you were only skimming the surface of three subjects in your three years, rather than studying one in some depth. And iDave has “lack of depth” written all over his potato face doesn’t he?

  23. Mr Ed says:

    @ Cats As one with a Latin ‘O’ level, and fluent Spanish and Portuguese (self taught by immersion), who dips into the Lusiads, and a Bio Science degree, I see no reason why a scientist could not have a knowledge of the ‘Arts’ from self-education. At the time of the Founding Fathers, there was little science outside mathematics, astronomy and natural philosophy, Franklin a notable scientist before the word existed, nor economics, and the concept of an education could not have extended much beyond the four cornerstones of the University, they were indeed impressive men.

    A scientist may readily study the Arts, if so minded, but the Arts types that Mr Chivers decries, tar them all not without evidence, reject the study of science, and appear to relish their rejection, which is to be deprecated. Without science, the world is a baffling place for the truly curious, note Sir John Gurdon’s comments on his wondering how a seed becomes a tree, no one had ever known that in 1947 when he was at school.

    And, apologies for my obscurity, snobbishness it may be, but socialists like ignorance, and my comment was to the effect that it serves socialists for there to be ignorance, even if the ignorant are not socialists. The ignorant are weaker for their ignorance though, should they wish to discern truth from lie.

  24. Roue le Jour says:


    “I’m not being snarky but I just don’t see the connection between political beliefs and scientific tendencies or aptitude.”

    You know when schools say they can’t find STEM teachers? They mean they can’t find left-wing female STEM teachers. (Why do you think they keep going on about getting women into science? So they have a pool of conformant teachers.)

    There are, of course, any number of forcibly retired middle aged engineers who could teach this stuff “standing on their ‘eds” but they don’t count. We don’t want children exposed to reality based blokes who laugh at windmills.

  25. Old Owl says:

    As often happens, Mr Kipling (who writes exceedingly good poems) said it right.

    In his poem “The Sons of Martha”, which is still used in some Canadian university Engineering department investiture rituals, he takes a chapter from the Bible (Luke 10) where Jesus visits Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. Whilst there Mary talks to Jesus “and sits at his feet” whilst Martha gets on with the practical tasks of cooking and serving dinner. The Sons of Martha are, in Kipling’s poem, the practical ones who create, invent and maintain the engines of civilisation; whilst the children of Mary sit around and talk, being waited on hand and foot.

    I have “The Sons of Martha” on my wall to remind me of why I do what I do. Engineers and scientists make the world safe for artists and talkers.

    I have “The Sons of Martha” on my wall to remind me of why I do what I do. Engineers and scientists make the world safe for artists and talkers.

  26. CountingCats says:

    Mr Ed,

    A knowledge of the Yarts from self education? Absolutely. That’s pretty much how I got mine.

    History? Read I Claudius when I were a youngster, that lead me into voracious reading about the later Republic through to the fall of Constantinople, with all the implications for surrounding civilisations over all that time. How many English Lit graduates have read Suetonius, Tacitus or Gibbon? If they can talk about Beowulf then so what? I can talk about Beowulf too. What they can’t talk about is Mendelian genetics or fresh developments in fusion technologies.

  27. File Under "Common Knowledge" says:

    Richard Feynman on this very topic:

  28. Charlie Suet says:

    As a Classicist I’ve encountered many more STEM graduates / undergraduates prepared to tell me that my degree is a waste of time than classicists who despised science degrees. In fact I can’t, off hand, remember hearing anyone on my university course disparage, say, Physics at any stage.

    What’s interesting is that I’ve always got the impression that much of science is based on evidence, on autopsy and on direct experimentation. Despite this those sneering at my degree had never actually attempted it themselves. They could not have read a single sentence of Thucydides in Greek and more often than not had given up all arts subjects as soon as possible. Funny that.

    For what it’s worth, I am mildly ashamed of my inability to do advanced science or maths and I have very little time for PPE graduates. The drivel that people are spouting on this thread is sadly typical, however.

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