Editorial: it just ain't natural
We shouldn't allow myth and dogma to cloud rational evidence-based argument
Remember when the Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked the government’s drugs advisor David Nutt for suggesting that alcohol was more dangerous than heroin? Well, that apparently was just the beginning. Now the coalition has removed the legal obligation to have scientists on the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs. It’s a move that the Drug Equality Alliance, which campaigns for rational drug laws, claimed was an attempt to “sweep away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria” in drugs policy.
And this is just one of a number of hot-button issues – abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research spring to mind – where, much as our leaders pay lip service to rationality and evidence-based argument, there is a thicket of myth, dogma and anxiety obscuring a clear view. Religion conventionally supplies a handy toolkit of presumptions about the rights and wrongs of meddling with God’s plans, but it is not only the devout who are prey to irrational fears about what is perceived as unnatural. In our cover story, the science writer Philip Ball examines the ways that abiding myths like the Frankenstein story continue to fascinate us and distort the public debate around the ethics of scientific innovation. As technology continues to open up dizzying possibilities for improving on nature, argues Ball, we need to clear away the superstitious clutter and reclaim rational discussion, involving both scientific evidence and moral good sense.
But science alone doesn’t always guarantee effective results, let alone morally acceptable ones. John Appleby digs into the dark history of rationalism’s promotion of eugenics, and asks why so many humanist heroes, many of whom were scientists, were so keen on the idea of controlling the procreation of those deemed undesirable. It may be shameful for us to acknowledge such a link but it’s not something we should be too surprised about. After all, isn’t it the job of rationalists to “think the unthinkable” and explore the options offered by new technology as dispassionately as possible? And science, by its very nature, is going to be wrong a lot of the time. As new discoveries push out the old we should celebrate the ability to change our mind as new evidence and new theories become available.
And that’s what philosopher and physician Alfred Tauber invites us to do in his reappraisal of Sigmund Freud. Meanwhile in a reappraisal of another kind, Ian Angell tells Laurie Taylor why, after 40 years as a world-renowned professor of information systems, he thinks that all of science is a kind of delusion.
And finally what of love? Is that too a delusion, an act of faith, a kind of myth? Sally Feldman finds out what a rationalist romance might look like. But if you find yourself date-less this February 14th, we have some company for you. Why not put your feet up and pop in your free gift DVD – a selection of comedy, science and music from the very first Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows. Rationalism is a serious business, but no one ever said it can’t also be a laugh.