Why is it OK to be ignorant?

13 09 2010

Why, in the 21st century, is it still socially acceptable to be ignorant about science?

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Today, I heard a piece explaining why genes inherited along the maternal line might promote selfishness. The scientist responsible for the research under discussion explained his findings clearly and in a way that was easily understood.

All human bodies are carriers of genes. One might imagine that genes will always cause the bodies which house them to act selfishly in order that the genes are protected and then transmitted to future generations via reproduction.  Altruistic behaviour might be beneficial if it promotes the survival of copies of the genes held in other bodies, ie the bodies of those to whom we’re related.  JBS Haldane in his discussion of Kin Selection famously explained that, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”

It would seem that in our distant past that it was the women who dispersed when finding mates and tended to live in family groups with the fathers family. The woman, therefore, was not related to anyone else in that family group; shared no genes with the group. Selfish attributes in genes carried by women may have proliferated under these circumstances in the maternal line.

Now, this is a fascinating idea and not difficult to understand, is it?

The interviewer on the Today programme reduced debate to “Ha Ha, blame your mother” There was no attempt to  understand and explain the findings – just a rush to the ‘amusing’ punch line – blame your mother.

It was perfectly acceptable for the well educated journalist to show a complete ignorance of science – to take the “if it’s too hard I wont understand it” approach. It should not be acceptable to be proud of such ignorance. Imagine had a scholar come onto the programme to talk about Shakespeare or Michelangelo. You can be sure that not only would the radio presenters have spoken to the expert in hushed, reverential tones, they would have been keen to show off their own knowledge of the arts.

It would not have been acceptable to be unaware that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and created the sculpture of David sited outside The Ufizzi in Florence.  But it is OK not to have the vaguest idea of the laws of science that allow the universe to exist. It is socially unacceptable to be unfamiliar with the novels of Dickens but perfectly acceptable if you cannot recite Newtons Law of Motion. And further, such ignorance of science is often a badge worn with pride – as if it is beneath the dignity of artists to sully their intellect with base technological knowledge.

It is not good enough and it should not be allowed to persist.

I am a scientist and am well read. I am proud that I have a broad knowledge. It enriches my life.  Journalists, and the rest, who refuse to engage with science should be ashamed of the gaps in their knowledge and not feel able to flout their ignorance.

It is important that this is not allowed to persist.

While young people are still getting the message that maths is hard, science is dull, chemistry boring, then we as a society will continue to struggle to get enough people to take science at university and to consider a career in technology.  The economy will suffer in the increasingly technology driven 21st century if we do not produce enough scientists and enough lay folk with a pride in the understanding of science.

For this reason it is important that we do not allow ignorance of science to be a badge of honour.