Science Heresy - January 2012



Joseph Priestley and the Modern World


  Modern science did not come out of universities and halls of learning. It came out of the mills and furnaces of Birmingham, out of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. The men who promoted it were frequently Dissenters who strongly opposed the institutionalized religion of the State which had denied them the right to even attend university or to hold public office because of their religious views.

What they discovered was that, by the careful application of reason combined with rigorous testing and experimentation, it becomes possible to understand and manipulate the physical world. Their aim was to make better steam engines and better ceramics - to mass produce for mass markets; but, most importantly, to gain understanding.

Such a man was Joseph Priestley who discovered oxygen (which he called "dephlogisticated air") and soda water - the latter being commercially exploited by a Mr. Schweppes. Priestley's ideas greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson, particularly his views on freedom of religion which later became part of the US Constitution. Priestley was hounded out of England by the Tory-inspired Birmingham Mob and emigrated to the US.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. It is now Science which holds the public imagination. Science has become, in effect, the official state religion.

But it is a poor, attenuated sort of science; one that is now largely funded from the public purse. It has become a rag-bag of prejudices and shibboleths. It would be barely recognisable to the pioneers of the eighteenth century. The idea of Mechanism and the language remain similar. What is missing is the verification process, the experimental rigour. The collegiate, liberal spirit has also become a thing of the past. Nowadays all that is needed is for a purportedly "scientific" theory to win public acclaim is for a high-status scientist or committee to make a pronouncement on an issue and it will capture media attention. The unsupported, apocalyptic predictions of prominent NASA scientist,  James Hansen , are a case in point.

Science has come to control almost every aspect of our daily lives telling us what we should eat, drink and smoke, how we should exercise,  how we should raise our children. What was once the hand-maiden of entrepreneurial capitalism has become the policeman of the Nanny State.

Priestley might be tolerated in today's world but it is doubtful if he would be published.

 The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow is wonderful account of Priestley's milieu.


January 2012