A piece recorded for ABC Radio National after the death of Billy Graham, evangelist for Christianity, but before the death of Stephen Hawking, evangelist for science. What more can we scientists do to share the thrill and exhilaration of discovery?
Here’s the full manuscript (not available with the podcast itself, unfortunately):
Billy Graham died recently. No matter what you thought of this high-profile American evangelist, there was no doubting his success in converting large numbers of people to his beliefs. It set me wondering why evangelists for science have not had similar success.
Science has certainly had its evangelists, and back in the nineteenth century they often drew large crowds. One of the most successful was Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani. Galvani was the one who discovered that animals could generate their own electricity, and who also showed that an externally applied electric current could make a dead frog’s legs kick. Aldini upped the ante by demonstrating the effects of electricity on the bodies of executed criminals in shows the length and breadth of Britain. One of his most spectacular efforts was in Glasgow, where he applied the electric current to an arm, which rose up with the index finger straightening out and pointing at the audience. The startled Glaswegians scattered wildly, convinced that their sins had found them out.
I was sure that my sins had found me out, too, when Billy Graham preached at the Sydney Showground in 1959, and pointed directly at me as a young teenager in the crowd. At least, it seemed to me that he was pointing at me, and I rapidly decided to become a better person. Sadly for my mother, who was a devout Methodist, the effect soon wore off.
But Billy made many more permanent converts, and that brings me back to my initial question “Why is it so difficult to convert people to the beauty and value of science?” I was converted at a young age, and I have never ceased to marvel at the wonderful range and depth of insights that science offers into the world around us.
The fact that you are listening to the Science Show probably means that you also are fascinated by science and what it has to tell us about the world. But, sadly, we are in a minority. For many people, science seems to represent something rather frightening – perhaps because it appears incomprehensible, or maybe because scientists are seen as wielding a frightening power; even the power over life and death.
Billy Graham was also concerned with fear – the fear of eternal damnation. He implanted this fear into many minds on that day in the Sydney Showground. But he made the fear work for him, by offering an alternative – the certainty of eternal salvation for true believers.
Scientists in recent times have also been concerned with fear. Fear of global warming. Fear of artificial intelligence. Fear of more destructive weapons. But, unlike the Billy Grahams of this world, the answers that we offer do not have the reassurance of certainty. They can even lead to the greatest fear of all – the fear that we have opening Pandora’s box, and released to humanity knowledge that humanity was never meant to have.
Science is like mountain climbing. We struggle to reach a peak, only to find when we reach it that there was another peak hidden behind it, higher and more difficult to climb. Our questions lead to answers but, unlike the answers of religion, our answers lead to further questions.
The scientific evangelists of earlier times emphasized the positive aspects of this process. They argued that our true salvation lies, not in blindly accepting dogma, but in pursuing understanding, and learning how to use that understanding for our benefit. Many religious evangelists of the time accepted the message. Instead of seeing science as the enemy, they gleefully joined forces, so that many popular science books of the time were published under the imprint of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.
One of the greatest promoters of science was Michael Faraday, whose many discoveries about electricity ushered in our modern electrical era. Victorian society flocked to his lectures at the Royal Institution on subjects as mundane as the chemical history of a candle, eager to find out how science was going to lead them to a better world.
Those lectures at the Royal Institution continue to this day, mostly to audiences of school children. I’ve given a couple myself, standing just where Faraday stood behind the great demonstration desk that he was the first to use. One of my talks was on the science of toffee apples – a subject even more mundane than the chemical history of a candle. But the intention was the same – to excite inquiring minds into wanting to catch on to science and what it can tell us about the world.
The same goes for many of the science programmes that now appear on television. But excitement is obviously not enough to overcome the fear of science that now permeates great sections of our community. It’s not entirely the scientists’ fault – the media thrive on drama, and there is more drama to be had from fear than there is from optimism or rational discussion.
But there is another drama in science – the drama of climbing the mountain, and of finding answers that lead to further questions and higher peaks deep within the mountain range. We cannot compete with religious evangelists who offer an untestable assurance of certainty. What we can offer, and should offer, is more along the lines of the non-evangelical religion of Buddhism – to share the path that we are following, and to school others in its value.
That value comprises a balanced mixture of excitement and reality. Scientific tele-evangelists of the modern era tend to focus on the former, and to emphasize the fun of science – not “fun” as generally understood in a playground or video game sort of way, but the fun of catching on.
Alongside this, though, we also need to focus on the realities of science. Some of those realities can be bleak, such as the predictions of climate models. Others can be exhilarating, such as the discovery of the gravitational waves, whose existence had been predicted by Einstein a century earlier. But in all cases the answers are just a step along the path, leading to fresh questions and fresh hope.
Science does provide answers, but we proselytizers for science are making a grave mistake if these are all that we have to offer, especially if we offer them in an atmosphere of fear. It is time for us to offer them in an atmosphere of hope. This means sharing, not just the answers that we have to date, but the new questions that go with those answers. It is these questions and their pursuit that offer hope, even in an atmosphere of fear.