The Blind Worshippers of Science

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On talking about the effects of Genetically Modified organisms in modern farming in his book The Great Food Gamble, John Humphrys writes: …..no one is denying science. What the critics of industrial agriculture are asking….is “Why should  we continue to have faith in a system  that is based on too many flawed principles?”

Blind worshippers believe in infallability. It is the fig leaf with which they try to conceal their ignorance.

Real scientists know – and are happy to acknowledge – that the essence of science is fallibility and that all knowledge they claim is provisional. It is not scientific knowledge unless it is in a form that leaves it open to being disproved. That is the principle of falsification laid down by Karl Popper.

[It is interesting to note here that Darwin was of this ilk. He declared “that if anyone could show that anything in Nature was not of an evolutionary origin, all his theories would fall apart”]

Those sad souls want an authority in which they can trust implicitly. They seek to invest scientists with powers denied to mere ‘laymen’. There is nothing new in this. Human beings down the ages have sought infallible authority, it’s so much more comforting. The blind worshippers who once may have got it from priests often now look to scientists to fill that role. It is easy to understand why. The world is such a complicated place that it is difficult to work everything out for ourselves and we need someone to tell us what the truth is. Scientists are the people who know the most about how the world works so they are the authority to whom the blind worshippers turn.  Good scientists endlessly remind us of their fallibility but the blind worshippers refuse to listen; doubting priests were always a bit of a pain.

The trouble is that there are always some scientists who are perfectly willing to be worshipped. Their white coats are their vestments their hierarchy of degrees and academic titles represent the order of priesthood. To the great unwashed their arcane language is as mystifying as Latin liturgy. They disappear into the vestry of their laboratory with its mysterious equipment and when they emerge they smile beatifically as we bend the knee to receive the blessing of their great knowledge. If their doctrine contains any notion of fallibility or the provisional nature of their knowledge – it is written in very small print indeed. These are the false prophets . As the priesthood has its charlatans , so the profession of science has its own pretenders….

Science is simply knowledge acquired by study. It is nothing more and nothing less.

It is a powerful force and it is open to every single one of us with an enquiring mind to engage in it. It helps to have training it helps even more to have research support and resources. But non of that is essential. Knowledge may be acquired by sitting in a laboratory and looking through a microscope and learning from it. Equally it might be acquired by sitting on a farm gate, studying the way grass grows and learning from it… It is not the ability to experiment with different molecules and create a powerful pesticide any more than it is the ability to experiment with different rotations of crops to create a bigger harvest. ….

The blind worshippers tell us that without ‘science’ as they narrowly define the word there would be no progress. Yet modern agriculture began more that 10 thousand years ago. How many laboratories were there then? The answer is of course, that there were thousands and thousands of them. Every enclosed and cultivated patch of land was a laboratory. Every seed sown was an experiment. If the first primitive man who spotted the effect of animal dung on the growth of plants managed to repeat the effect was not a scientist then what was he? He acquired knowledge. He had discovered fertiliser. He proved that a plant was able to thrive with it and fail without it.  ( John Humphrys, (the counter revolution), The Great Food Gamble, 2001)

By this understanding and definition Sir Albert Howard, the founding cause of our humble web site, was one of our greatest scientists. His worked influenced more farmers of the world in his time to a faster and more successful degree than possibly any other scientists’ work. His achievements were not by way of accident as was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Flemming. Howard’s conclusions resulted from a life time of observation, study and experiment of the things that sustain our very beings. He studied the staff of life – plants – and how they grow. His guide was Mother Nature and  the peasant farmers of millenia, and his resource was funding from the British Government.

Further reading

Rethinking Farming

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