Chris Packham – the worst stereotype of scientist.

[Post Note : April 2016 update on Chris Packham and Speaking the Unsayable.]

Just listened to Chris Packham on Desert Island Discs. We have a lot in common, I’m maybe 4 years older, our interests in science and music had very similar origins and early trajectories, but I have to say he came across as a gross self-parody of the worst kind of scientistic media-celeb scientist. Nothing personal, just the stereotypical archetype of much that is wrong with modern science, and why the way it is promoted as teaching knowledge through the media is potentially so damaging to humanity.

His “red in tooth and claw” description of the Sparrow Hawk shredding the Greenfinch, suggesting any “repulsion” is tantamount to closing one’s mind on the true beauty of the process [*]. No, it’s the human response acknowledging that there is far more to Darwinian evolution than the individual vs individual life and death competition. His infatuation with the joyous predictability of his “dogs and other animals” is precisely because he – on his own admission – rejects human beauty as too complicated for his taste.

Proudly sceptic, like any good scientist, rejecting authority, the rebel (rebel rebel, punk to be different) always questioning authority. As he says, authority needs to be earned (yawn, this is news?) but having earned it, I ask, does it not deserve any respect ? Simple Darwinian principles are levels of “fidelity” and “fecundity” – predominantly copying established precedent – upon which to play the exceptional mutant games of new opportunity. Conservative authority must be respected or we have no progress. Anti-establishment rejection for its own sake gets us nowhere, the special – destructive – case of falsification testing [or Sparrow Hawk eats Greenfich] is only a small part of the whole enterprise. Difference must be an exception from a norm.

I’d mentally drafted most of the above during the programme, but he caps it all …. the Bible and Shakespeare as “fuel”. Oh how we laughed. I’m often impressed how Kirsty manages to skip over those two without attracting anti-religious comment (take it or leave it being left unsaid as not the point of the program) …. but no, he had to take the fight to the religious (and the literary in the same breath). What a closed-minded, bigoted, scientistic stereotype. Talk about missing the point.

And the final “pick one” choice-of-choices of this book-burning bigot?
The refrain from Penetration’s Shout Above the Noise.

“Don’t let them win.”

Truly the scientistic neurosis in Maxwell’s terms. A scientist paranoid about them. We should be teaching the next generation to acquire knowledge in the application of wisdom, not neurotic paranoia against those nasty humanities / humanists.

[(*) Post Note : coincidentally, posted on Facebook last year witnessing from my office window a Sparrow Hawk take a Chaffinch from our garden feeder in classic over-the-hedgerow smash-and-grab ambush mode last year. More interesting, early this year, we stood and watched a Kestrel stoop in full view just ten feet in front of us at Portland Bill, gradually dropping and hovering in careful stages as it kept eyes on its prey the opposite side of a 2 metre high wall in front of us, only to pop-up instantly to sit with the vole in its claw on top of the wall in front of us. It proceeded to tear and swallow strips over the course of maybe 15 minutes, as we and a growing crowd of maybe 6 or 8 passing walkers paused to watch. Fascinating.When it got to some of the more gruesome entrails it contemplated disdainfully whether to swallow before discarding and moving on to tastier morsels, eventually flying off to somewhere more private to finish its meal.]

9 thoughts on “Chris Packham – the worst stereotype of scientist.”

  1. I find it hard to concur with your review of this edition of DID and from listening to Feedback on R4 later it seems that CP touched a nerve with many listeners. I accept that the popular view isn’t always the correct one but, on this occasion, you may be marching out of step.
    His throw away “fuel” comment made me smile a little (although on reflection Lee Mack’s recent comments that he should at least try to read the book on which so much history has been invested, seems more appropriate).
    For me , CP, may be simplistic in his zeal but he has an honesty which I admire (and aspire to?) – I see where you’re coming from re the Sparrowhawk/Chaffinch encounter but isn’t the distaste shown by many to a natural act such as this is just as disingenuous?) .
    Anyway, I’ll remain a CP fan and an admirer of his talents not least because we share a consuming love of the music of Mr Bowie!

  2. Thanks for the comment Martin.
    As I clearly said, it was nothing personal about Chris Packham, he made me smile too, and I loved his musical heritage, if a little narrow, but it was what has become the standard “meme” of the celebrity new-atheist / media-scientist. In that context I think “simplistic zeal” needs to be pointed out so that we get better public communication of science and where it relates to the wider world beyond science, not just simplistication. On the specifics:

    The “yuk factor” as it’s called does have its value – that’s why it’s evolved to exist – and it is not disingenuous to say so. It is not as Chris said, any “denial” of the value in Darwinian evolution, except in those who already deny it. Evolution is far more subtle and beautiful than this kind of “simplistic zeal” communicates. I’m promoting pan-neo-Darwinism in all its gory (glory) far from denying it. He’s the one in denial (another long story – Nick Maxwell anyone?).

    Being out of step. Obviously. Because I’m pointing out where the status quo is misguided. Simplistically 😉 – being popular isn’t being right. Or as Grayson Perry put it even more recently “democracy has bad taste”. I could give you a longer tale on “memetics”.

    Just to repeat, Chris Packham is a nice man with entertaining talents. But public (popular) simplistication of real science is dangerous – to us all in the long run.

  3. My friend met him last year and said she thought he was autistic, or he just doesn’t like people. He was at a meet n greet style event, and not once did he smile for a photo or put his arm around anyone! A girl asked him a question and he totally disregarded what she had said and instead told her to go somewhere she didn’t want to. He didn’t bother to find out how good her photography skills are. She was not impressed, and said he seemed to think he was better than anyone there. She always says nice things about everyone. so for her to say that he must be a million times worse!

  4. Interesting; “autism” in the technical sense is one of the adjectives I often use to describe the overly scientistic, like Mr Packham, though of course he does claim not to like humans. I’ve nothing against him personally, since I’ve never met him, but arrogance is another trait of those who claim science is the only yardstick to measure value in life.

    Conversely I have to say, I’m warming to him in his current series on “clever” animals, where he does seem to be sticking to the science he knows, despite getting off to a bad start with the corvids (crows), where it seems to be an occupational hazard to overclaim their intelligence. He was even recognising, despite his expressed preference for his dogs over humans, how dumb his dogs actually are compared to truly intelligent creatures.

  5. Are all the scientists that grace our screens these days humanistic atheists with a breath-taking degree of scepticism matched only by their benign arrogance? Are there any other kinds of scientists out there who might hold other ethical viewpoints?

  6. All, no. I’m talking about that “celebrity” stereotype (explicitly). My main quest is to find wiser, more grounded spokespeople for science – like (say) Jon Butterworth, Sabine Hossenfelder to name a couple. What’s your interest Will – or just a rhetroical question?

  7. There are very few scientists, or even naturalists, who, having been entrained to think and enquire purely objectively (i.e. solely within a non-existent definitive frame and from outside-inwards), have any idea of what ‘natural’ means. The science of natural inclusion, by contrast, is based purely on evidence and reasoning, while not discounting the vitality of intangible presence in all natural phenomena. See

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