Stepping in the Bullshit of Science

Eye of the Storm

Conference Review

'Science is value free,' repeated biologist Lewis Wolpert emphatically during the opening session of February's Eye of the Storm conference at the Royal Institution. The following day Robin Baker (Reader in Zoology at the University of Manchester and author of ) claimed, in response to a criticism of his talk by artist Del LaGrace Volcano, that 'I just look at the facts.' But which ones, Roger, which ones?

These kind of comments were common from the speakers, most of whom were scientists of one shade or another. For although the conference was subtitled 'Artists in the Maelstrom of Science', it should really have been called 'Scientists in the Maelstrom of Art', as one after another scientists trooped up in the bear pit of the lecture hall at the Royal Institution (famous for staging pop science Christmas lectures for many a year) to be questioned and hooted at by an audience that seemed to consist mostly of artists (of one shade or another).

The great fault of the conference was not its title, nor its list of speakers, most of whom were well known and gave interesting presentations. (Appearances were made by physicist Sir Roger Penrose, psychologist Susan Greenfield, media-man Melvin Bragg, AI-pundit Igor Aleksander, nuclear sculptor James Acord, biologist John Maynard-Smith, mad-scientist Heinz Wolff and the always offensive Jack Cohen - a glittering array of stars if ever there was one.) The problem was, rather, that while time for discussion was allowed, the discussions were on the whole so badly managed that the billed confrontation between the arts and the sciences never really happened. This was particularly so on the second day, when Susan Greenfield (who had unfortunately been given the task of mediating all of the sessions) overdosed on the power and began to try and conduct the audience like Thomas Beecham on speed.

The result of this was that the scientist got away with thinking that the whole conference was an exercise in them teaching the ignorant artists something about science. It was hard to believe their attitude (and thanks to Greenfield, even harder to challenge it). One particularly representative comment was made by Reading roboticist Kevin Warwick, to the effect that he really wanted to work with artists, so that he could teach his robots to appreciate Mozart (said without a trace of irony). Another was Wolpert's assumption that genetic engineering was value-free, because it might could help prevent cystic fibrosis - a conclusion he reached without ever addressing the massive questions raised by the reduction of the agricultural gene-pool by the cloning of cereal stock and the creation of fertiliser dependency in these same plants by manipulation at the genetic level (forcing farmers to buy certain chemicals in order to be able to grow their crops). Considering he is currently Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, Wolpert should really know better.

For these guys and gals, art is all about truth and beauty. Post-modernism was a slightly degenerate passing phase; they felt the same way about it that they'd have felt about catching their kid sniffing glue, and now the art world had grown out of it we could all get back to going to the National Gallery to look at the Impressionists. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad. Artists may not speak the language of science, and for sure there were a lot of artists at the conference asking dumb questions. But at least they weren't going around like a bunch of testosterone fuelled sixth-formers claiming that they were right because they knew all the facts. Or that responsibility doesn't have some kind of connection with action. The time has clearly come for the art-science divide to be closed. The artists are busily boning up on their quantum mechanics and chaos theory; methinks it's time for the scientists to do a little catching up of their own. - James Flint

Eye of the Storm - Artists in the Maelstrom of Science was organised by Arts Catalyst and took place at the Royal Institution, 21 Albermarle St., London W1, 19-20 February 1998

James Flint was editor of WIRED UK, is science editor for Mute magazine and is currently working on a literary novel. (James Flint)