Science, Hope, Censorship

John Gray ( Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals , 19) argues that “Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship.”

It feeds hope because science is the only institution where progress is evident: “The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.”

It fulfills the need for censorship. Science alone can “silence heretics.”

Only science today possesses the power “to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.” Science is far from unified, Gray notes, but “by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.” Science is the only “refuge from uncertainty,” while “churches have become sanctuaries for doubt.” Science thus provides an essential social good: the illusion of a unified outlook on reality. Science plays the social role that Christianity played in Christendom.

Gray knows that modern science originated “in faith, magic and trickery,” and he attributes the triumph of science to the fact that its founders “were more skillful than [their opponents] in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics” (20-1).

The skepticism is bracing, and not a little amusing. But one cannot help but wonder how Gray thinks we did it. How can there be progress in knowledge when there is progress nowhere else?

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