Knowing about science is not a trivial pursuit

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

From today’s paper: Why do otherwise intelligent people think scientific pig ignorance is socially acceptable?

At parties around this time of year, with some randomly assembled group of family or friends or in-laws or vagrants in a bus station, I’ll play Trivial Pursuit. Without fail, when a “science and nature” question gets asked, someone says, “Oh, I’m useless at science. I’m much better at general knowledge.” And by January 1, every year, I finally snap: when did science stop being part of “general knowledge”?

It happens all the time, and it’s not just in family games of Triv. A few weeks ago I was in a Telegraph team that took part in a charity quiz. (We won: we have a Mastermind winner working in our library.) But I was startled when one of our reporters, an intelligent and educated man whose name I shall not reveal, admitted he had no idea what the speed of light is. He had, a few moments before, been chatting knowledgeably about Caravaggio, about the Ring Cycle, about the influence of post-modernism on David Foster Wallace’s novels, all of which went whistling over my head. “Oh but that’s art. Art is general knowledge,” he said, and I bit through my knuckle to keep silent.

Why is it acceptable, in certain educated circles, to cheerfully express total ignorance of the largest, and most important, domain of human knowledge? Someone who professed to know nothing about, say, music, or books, would be rightly scoffed at. But it’s fine, apparently, to be clueless about science and maths.

When you think about it, it’s extremely strange. Scientific progress, and its conjoined twin technological progress, is the difference between us and our (anatomically modern) Homo sapiens ancestors, who hadn’t yet worked out that they ought to tie that flint axe to a stick to make it work better. It’s the difference between believing that epilepsy is demonic possession or that malaria is caused by “bad air”, and our being able to treat those conditions with modern medicines. It’s the difference between having to keep your trireme in sight of land in order to navigate, and sending a space probe to investigate Saturn’s moons. Scientific progress is keeping you alive: we literally wouldn’t be able to feed the world if it weren’t for the 1960s Green Revolution in agricultural science. With the best will in the world, you can’t say any of that about Philip Glass, or Gulliver’s Travels.

Even if some people might think that others can get on with the dull business of making the world work better while they swan around listening to Debussy and watching Alan Yentob programmes on BBC Four, it seems a shame. Such people, presumably, have no idea about why the universe is why it is: why mountains rise and fall, why gases behave differently from solids, what a flame actually consists of. A flower is just a pretty little ornament to them. An artist once told the great physicist Richard Feynman that, as a scientist, he couldn’t appreciate a flower’s beauty: “You take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” Feynman’s response was: “I think that he’s kind of nutty… I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.”

I don’t want to denigrate art. It brings joy to millions of lives. It might well also have saved millions of lives: another scientist, the neurolinguist Steven Pinker, suggests that by allowing people to imagine what it is like to be someone else, literature has expanded humanity’s “circle of empathy”, and contributed to the steady decline of violence throughout human history. And the world would be dull indeed without music, or film, or for that matter Saturday night celebrity dancing programmes.

But all of those things appeal to us because we are human. And why does being human mean that we find beauty beautiful? Why do we dance to music and why do we enjoy well-crafted words? The ultimate answers to these questions can’t be found in a history of art class, or in Deconstructing Derrida 101. The answers will start from the basic fact that we are a species of ape, a product of evolution, and these aesthetic tastes grew out of the ancient punishment-and-reward system that helped our ancestors live longer and reproduce.

Does that ruin it for you? It shouldn’t. As with Feynman’s flower, understanding doesn’t reduce the beauty, it deepens it. Without a basic understanding of how humanity came to be, people enjoying art are like spectators at a football game who don’t know the rules, staring at the pretty patterns and the impressive skills without really understanding what’s going on. There’s a beautiful, important world underneath the surface of everything we call “art”, and unless you have some inkling of what it’s about, you’re only seeing a tiny part of the picture. And if that’s not a good enough reason to start learning, it’ll make you much better at Trivial Pursuit, as well.


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