The Vegetables of Truth

Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook for a link to the excellent BBC blog by Adam Curtis. The blog is The Medium and the Message, and the particular post that caught my eye is The Vegetables of Truth from over a month ago.

Very much my agenda, that science has lost its way, and has become too big and powerful as a socio-political driver, distorting both science and society’s perception of it. Adam’s particular point here is the dominance of risk aversion and the public misunderstanding of risk, and how the politics of science feeds into this. Although risk perception has been a topic of mine, my particular focus has been the motivations of science (and humanism) against issues has lost sight of what they’re for, and led to distortion in both the practice and reporting of scientific rationality. In fact science confuses itself between claiming objective neutrality, enabling a glorious future, fighting against irrationality, whist claiming the accidental position of humanity in nature and denying purpose not only in the cosmos generally but even denying individual free-will. Science is seriously fucked-up, which wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t got itself into a position where its façade of scientific objectivity gave it a preferential gloss over any alternative arguments branded as subjective, irrational or simply “unscientific”. The common point is that news being “scientific” carries weight way beyond the actual quality of the science and its motivations. Being motivated, rather than presumed neutral, means that conclusions publicised, even used the set public policy, are not just suspect, but downright perverse.

There are two – parallel – universes of science. One is the actual day-to-day work of scientists, patiently researching into all parts of the world and sometimes making amazing discoveries.

The other is the role science plays in the public imagination – the powerful effect it has in shaping how millions of ordinary people see the world.

Often the two worlds run together – with scientists from the first world giving us glimpses of their extraordinary discoveries. But what sometimes happens is that those discoveries – and what they promise – get mixed up with other social and political ideas. And then the science begins to change into something else.

Well said. His headline refers to the recent 7-a-day fruit & veg story raising the stakes over the 5-a-day policy being so clearly suspect and motivated by something other than science. So much so that I think I just dismissed it with a Facebook quip and said no more about it at the time. But Adam is right. This is just another symptom, more evidence that science has lost its true place in society. It’s just one recent example, but Adam provides a little history of public perceptions of science. I too found the tremendous positive vibe in the documentary about the Chernobyl workers seeing the job they needed to do as an end beyond any risk to their own lives. He ends on a further positive note:

As an antidote – here is a beautiful film about vegetables. It’s a documentary made in 1972 about a leek-growing contest in Newcastle. It is very camp – with lots of men discussing the length and diameter of their leeks.

It is also all about statistics and numbers – because it is the measurements that will decide the winner. But in this case it’s not about the fear of death. It’s all about pride and glory in the vegetables – among men who lead the unhealthiest of lives. Constantly smoking and drinking as they talk about their beloved vegetables.

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