Modern civilisation has trusted scientists to lead mankind boldly into the future, but according to biologist, science broadcaster and author Professor Brian J. Ford, the noble minds of academia have been largely replaced with self-serving egos happily leading us down an intellectual cul-de-sac.
He first lampooned the wild, wacky and worrying domain of the so-called ‘Expert’ fifty years ago in his lauded satirical work, Nonscience. To mark the book’s upcoming golden anniversary, Professor Ford has revisited his number one pet peeve and finds that the world is now even more confused and chaotic as a result.
By Timothy Arden
Imagine a world where it’s not what you do that counts, but what you say. A place where those who never turn the big dreams into reality are publicly celebrated, and the results don’t matter in the race to get ahead.
Here, scientists and snake-oil salesmen have merged into one, and have risen to positions of power, fame and influence by duping everybody into backing pointless or unrealistic – yet highly lucrative – projects that advance themselves and little else.
It’s a world of ‘nonscience’ (a portmanteau of ‘non’ and ‘science’), according to author Professor Brian J. Ford – a respected biologist, science educator and broadcaster.
What’s worse, were all living in it.
In 1971, Professor Ford unleashed Nonscience – a savagely satirical swipe at ‘Experts’ (note the capital) and their increasing domination over the planet. With Swiftian fury it pilloried the academic world, accusing it of rewarding those who aspired to orthodoxy, conformity and intellectual dishonesty.
Packed with more firecrackers than Chinese New Year, its general dismissal of modern science, institutional prejudice and accusations of shady practices such endemic plagiarism caused an immediate media and public sensation. It was featured on BBC TV (Tomorrow’s World) and was released worldwide, being translated into multiple languages. So powerful was the book that the word ‘nonscience’ has since entered our common vocabulary.
To mark its upcoming 50th anniversary, and as the title proudly asserts, Curtis Press have just republished the book as Nonscience Returns. Returning with it is Professor Ford, now in his 80s and still actively contributing to science and learning, who has fully expanded and updated his classic work of satire for the modern era, packing in an extra 100 pages to almost double its length.
The good news is that the original remains untouched, with the new additions nestled at the beginning and ending of chapters. These are more direct in their assaults and are interspersed with the author’s reflections on the many predictions he made in Nonscience which have since come to pass, such as his forecasts that the world of subatomic particles would become a thriving sector, Britain’s universities would be commercialised and industrialised, or that the UK’s student population would “mushroom” in size.
The better news is that the new material is just as insightful and bitingly funny as that of its predecessor. That’s to be especially welcome as, if the author is correct, the problem of the Expert has only continued to grow in scale and urgency.
Professor Ford’s purpose with the book, propelled by a clear sense of dismay and disbelief, is to expose and ridicule…
“…a new breed of individual. Unquestioned, infallible, omniscient; trusted above all to guide lesser mortals along life’s precarious path.”
These are the so-called Experts that we need to be on guard against. Individuals who wear the guise and training of scientists but lack the same sincerity and dedication to knowledge of their (probably less successful) peers. Or, as the author puts it:
“Scientists of old would work on subjects of common interest, or which were likely to throw up discoveries for the benefit of humankind; the Expert of today is concerned primarily with what is newsworthy, and what is in the public eye—what, to coin a phrase, is Fashionistic.”
And these Experts – granted a proper noun by Professor Ford so “we may elevate that initial ‘e’ into a capital letter, as humankind has done for their peers, masters and lords for centuries past” – are apparently doing very well out of perverting science to their own ends.
It troubles the author that the proponents of this “brash new discipline” can, in his view, essentially swindle significant research grants into studies that are…
“…typically obscure, unrealistic, pointless, harmful, incomprehensible, thoughtless, short-sighted and unrelentingly inhumane.”
What’s more alarming, though, is that Experts have, according to Professor Ford, galloped out of the ivory towers of academia into positions of authority, with the end result that nonscience and its disciples “presume on our tolerance, decimate our lives and upset our personal well-being in so many ways simultaneously”.
Their power lies in the esoteric, hyper-specialised subjects they pursue, he says, and the equally complex language they use, or coin especially for the occasion, to describe it – and which is designed not to enlighten but to bamboozle.
An Expert, as Ford notes with his dry sense of wit, wouldn’t be happy with being accused of fashionism – they’d much prefer the term “quasi-notional fashionistic normativity” instead.
Taking the comment further, the author ironically gifted his book with what is believed to be the longest and most complex title in publishing history. I’m not sure what all 484 characters of it mean, but that’s exactly the point.
Written largely in the mocking guise of a text book for aspiring Experts, Nonscience Returns features chapters such as “A Career as an Expert”, “How to Impress Your Colleagues” and “Fame at Last”, and closes with an “Expertistical reorientational assessment” to determine the reader’s own Expert rating.
It’s remains a great – and utterly unique – work of humour but also, like the best satire, is bang on the pulse and continually draws our attention to the real-world trends and issues within its sights, from the anti-vaccine movement and debate over plastics to the confusing handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Ford never held back in this regard within the original – where his targets included the introduction of British Summer Time, an Expert-led decision that, as he puts it: “…drove the entire population magically from their beds in the pitch blackness of the depths of winter. Not even a concerted raid by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War could be relied upon to do that.”
With the benefit of the intervening five decades, however, he now has plenty more targets to cut into with his scalpel-sharp and analytical mind, dissecting the outrageous and absurd for our entertainment and indignation.
Astrophysicists, particle physicists and environmental campaigners are all fair game, for instance, while the particle-smashing Large Hadron Collider – which had a $5billion price tag – is found sorely wanting. With a disarming matter-of-fact approach, the author lays in to the LHC for receiving $1billion annually for its upkeep without, in his view, showing anything tangible for it:
“If you ran a business like the LHC that failed so conspicuously to do what you had stated when you were claiming funds, you would be fired, gaoled, or end up in court.”
The LCH, and other ‘big science’ projects are, in Professor Ford’s estimation, little more than sinecures for boffins that repeatedly offend the values of science by selling the sizzle, not the steak.
Perhaps the biggest, fully-intended irony within the 300-plus page tome is just how much you learn. All throughout Nonscience Returns, the author corrects popular myths and misconceptions propagated by Experts, and which he believes is spread with the help of an unquestioning media. One such bugbear for him is the nice-sounding but, as he explains succinctly, scientifically inaccurate description of the Amazon rainforest as the “lungs of the Earth”.
This may betray his role as one-time science editor for Guinness World Records or his second career as a science broadcaster and populariser. He has been a regular on TV and radio for decades and has presented numerous popular science show including Science Now, Where Are You Taking Us?, and Kaleidoscope. He even had his own BBC game show, Computer Challenge, during the 1980s.
One of the key points of his book is that education is the only thing that will help bring Experts back under control. His assessment of the current British educational system, however, is damning, with the author accusing schools of inadequately equipping young minds with the mental tools and real-world skills to see through any academic smoke and mirrors.
They are, in his opinion, institutions that have become nothing more than “baby-sitting service for working parents” that have, “21st-century youngsters having 20th-centurypeople teach 19th-century methods devised for an 18th-century timetable.”
You may not agree with all of Professor Ford’s many assertions, which cover a startling array of topics ranging from artificial intelligence to the Great British Bake Off, but you’ll enjoy the lecture immensely all the same.
His book will be relished by anyone who is curious about the modern world and how our understanding of it is constructed, as well as those interested in current affairs or popular science more generally.
Nonscience Returns, indeed, and it seems not a moment too soon.
Exclusive Q& A Interview with Professor Brian J. Ford
We speak to Nonscience Returns author Professor Brian J. Ford about how his original book came about, why so-called ‘Experts’ have been allowed to take charge of our daily lives, and what we can do to address the situation…f
Q. Your book, Nonscience, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Did you expect it to become the sensation it proved to be when it was first published back in 1971?
A. Having someone ring and say: ‘Your book’s on the BBC’s television show Tomorrow’s World!’ – and later seeing a copy on sale for $1,500 as a collector’s item – would surprise anybody. At that time I’d published two books, one in New York on the weapons of WWII (a continuing spare-time interest), and a textbook on microbiology, published in London. I then thought of writing a booklet for a light-hearted series, a Bluffer’s Guide to Science. Those Guides were paperback booklets published by Peter Wolfe, and he asked me to lunch in the West End so that we could discuss it further. From the start, he saw it as something far greater; he believed my idea – people misusing science to impress politicians and the public, and gain lots of funding with little to back it – was actually a serious subject. So he proposed that I abandon the idea of a booklet, and instead write a major satire on the whole topic. By the time lunch was over (late in the afternoon) we had agreed a very satisfactory advance payment, and Peter resolved to make this his first hardbound book. From then on, it was clear that it had the makings of an influential volume. I typed out a silly title as a joke for him, full of meaningless long words (to show the way science was going) but everyone in the office loved it – and so it became the most polysyllabic title in publishing history. When the book was translated into Spanish, they even managed to interpret the whole title … and indeed, it did prove to be influential. It gave a second, sarcastic meaning to the word ‘Expert’ as a know-all who blinds you with jargon, and that has endured for fifty years. Its success was a surprise – more of a shock to the system.
Q. You say that the world is now dominated by experts. How did this come to pass and why is it a bad thing?
A. It came to pass because we don’t educate people as we should, we just train them; and so they are liable to believe anything. Kids are given algebra and Shakespeare when they ought to be learning about science, the law, about politics, how their bodies work and why it is good to be kind. There is much confusion about the coronaviruses these days simply because nobody was ever taught about them in school. And – even though vaccines have vanquished smallpox, have come close to conquering polio, and could’ve conquered measles – typical children learnt nothing about that in school either. As a result, there has been a wonderfully amusing rumour that the new 5G aerials caused the pandemic. I love the sheer lunacy of it all. So, in my book, I show that Candy Crush Saga caused cholera in Tahiti. That’s the ‘bad thing’ about Experts: because they manage to confuse issues, and keep the public at bay, they can get away with whatever whacky project they choose. I was lecturing on the need for the public to be involved in science in a round-the-world lecture tour back in the seventies … it hasn’t happened yet.
Q. You have regularly appeared on TV and radio over the last 50 years. What do you make of how popular science is now presented to the public compared to when you first started out as a broadcaster?
A. It’s appalling. I can sum it up politely by saying that today’s science-based TV documentaries are trite, superficial, riddled with mistakes and patronising in tone. Could you imagine a political programme, or a documentary on economics, being narrated by a pop star or an actor? As it is, producers have celebrities explaining ecology, or they take physicists (like Jim Al-Khalili or Brian Cox) and have them narrate programmes about areas of science of which they are lamentably ignorant. I have been asked by producers to avoid using Latin names for organisms on television. Why? Youngsters love long Latin names for dinosaurs, while old folk are happy browsing among the obscure plants in garden centres. If kids are content with Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum and Micropachycephalosaurus hongtuyanensis, and pensioners happy with Metasequoia glyptostroboides or Hypophyllocarpodendron cucullatus, why should the TV audience be over-stretched by knowing that some poisonous microbe was a dinoflagellate? Or that the organism that makes their wine is Saccharomyces? Most producers are essentially ignorant of science and assume everybody else is too. And it bemuses me that they are so happy for me to demonstrate my experiments over spontaneous human combustion, or to account for the weapons used in WWII, but don’t want me to make programmes about microbes. In previous years I used to pop up on Woman’s Hour or Newsbeat to explain the latest scientific news; nobody does that in the same way now. My weekly programme on Radio Four, Science Now, was on Saturday mornings at 11am – a peak time, and it had a huge audience. Its successor these days is a light-hearted chat on a weekday afternoon. The BBC have downgraded such subjects. We live in an era of science, yet the public are disenfranchised from what it all means. That’s dangerous.
Q. What would you suggest as being the most effective way to keep experts in check?
A. As that digital meerkat likes to say, “shimples”. Let people in on the secret. Educate everybody about the things that matter. Recognise that school has degenerated into a state-funded baby-sitting service for working parents and that universities are the new National Service (except that the hapless students plunge themselves dreadfully in debt to fund their college’s excesses). We should recognise that, with the abundance of information available through the world-wide web, we have all the best brains available online. Teachers like to ban mobile phones in the classroom; I’d welcome them in and show kids how to use them as they expand their minds. And I’d radically reform television. It is not part of the BBC’s brief to screen mind-numbing game shows and soft porn. They should be opening the world to an inquiring public. Then people would be more interested in things that matter (like staying alive, and creating contentment) and less preoccupied with the violence, misery and unhappiness that makes up much of what they see on screen.
Q. As a renowned biologist and expert on virology, what is your take on the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic?
A. It has failed from the start. You conquer a pandemic by tracing contacts and isolating people with the virus. It then goes away. China is one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and takes no notice of challenges about personal freedom. They introduced tracking, tracing and quarantine from the start. They also developed four vaccines. But they won’t need them because the virus is virtually vanished, and life is essentially back to normal. Look at our government’s response: on 11th March, 2020 the WHO announced that the new outbreak was a global pandemic, so what did our government do the next day? They stopped tracking and tracing! We could’ve followed the examples of our European neighbours (like Germany) but we didn’t, and ended up having the highest death rates from Covid-19 anywhere in the entire world. Our biggest mistake is the way we send Covid-19 patients to regular hospitals, where they risk infecting everyone else. The government boasted about ‘building new Nightingale hospitals’ (they didn’t build anything; they simply equipped some exhibition centres) and then used them for the overflow. They should have been where Covid-19 was treated. No coronavirus patient should have been allowed anywhere near a conventional hospital. As it is, tens of thousands of folk have lost out on things like treatment for cancer, and hip-replacement operations, because we didn’t isolate the virus victims. To me, that’s our biggest mistake. We also encourage the wearing of facemasks, even though virus particles are hundreds of times smaller than the tiniest perforation in a mask. Personally, I’d encourage people to do something nobody is suggesting – wear cotton gloves. Much of the viral transmission is by touching infected surfaces, and viruses don’t remain viable for long on cotton. Some folk wear latex or plastic gloves, but they are not as good; the skin of the hands enclosed in these gloves becomes moist and encourages bacteria to multiply, while any germ that infects the surface will be transferred to everything else the wearer touches. Those gloves spread disease. But cotton gloves can be laundered, and hinder disease transmission. They are what I’d recommend everyone to wear. I’d also like to see people using dilute hypochlorite as a sterilizing solution. It’s much easier to use, much cheaper, far less hazardous (those alcohol-based sanitisers are highly inflammable, and alcohol burns with an almost invisible flame) and could keep everyone safer. People talk glibly of a ‘covid-safe’ environment. There is no such thing. But dilute hypochlorite, and cotton gloves, would come closer to making you safe.
Q. What is the proudest moment of your career?
A. I’ve never experienced pride. It’s a selfish emotion, and I tend instinctively to think of others. Moments that excited me I do remember: discovering the first-ever specimens in the history of science (dating from the 1600s, which I unearthed at the Royal Society); meeting and chatting with Little Richard, a childhood idol; my first successful micrographs, pictures taken down a microscope when I was a teenager; sitting in the co-pilot’s seat on a transatlantic Concorde flight, inviting Prince Richard to open our £1m community centre here in Cambridgeshire (the largest voluntary project I’ve ever run); and lecturing in the Antarctic on an expedition cruise. Lots of others besides. It has been an adventurous life. Is being, I mean.
Q. The UK has long-enjoyed a reputation for being at the forefront of science. Do you think this description is still warranted?
A. Britain gave the world industry; the first computer; the first lightbulb. We created factories; gave birth to automation; introduced the first antibiotic, the first recognition of the cell nucleus, the first jet airliner, the first splitting of the atom, the first trains, the first electric motor, the first computers, and the unravelling of DNA. These all hail from Britain. We pioneered so many areas of science and technology, and we have such a fecund gene pool – deriving as we do from all over Europe and beyond – that we were always well-placed to generate novel notions. I think that British science is posed for a resurgence, if only we educate our young people to open their minds and their hearts to the world. I’ll bet none of them ever heard about any of the breakthrough discoveries I’ve just quoted when they were in school.
Q. You left university before graduating to set up your own multi-disciplinary laboratory. Why did you decide to do this before completing your degree?
A. As a teenager I used to say I’d never go to university, and I went to Cardiff as an undergraduate because I was persuaded one autumn afternoon that this would be the best way to proceed. It was all unconventional (I was already a newspaper science columnist and appearing twice a week as an R&B pianist in a nightclub) and I applied only a week or so before term began, when all applications should have been in a year earlier. My mentors were a genial lot, and the single surviving professor remains a good friend, but I didn’t like it. I said one day to my head of department that it seemed one had to study a fixed subject for a PhD and then stay in that field forever. He told me that this was why we had scientific disciplines, but I said I wanted to work in lots, sometimes running together, and indeed in the areas between. My writing a newspaper column wasn’t approved of (I was told to make up my mind whether I wanted a career in the media, or in science); they didn’t like my appearing on stage as a performer; and everyone said it was ridiculous to work in different disciplines at once. So in my second year I just stopped going to lectures, and soon opened my own laboratory to create a new way of prosecuting science. Don’t try this at home! It was ridiculously irresponsible. So, by the time my chums were graduating, I already had a successful career as a columnist and on TV as well as carrying out independent research into a great range of fields. In time my university appointed me a Fellow, and for many decades I was a member of the university court. You may imagine my sense of inner satisfaction when my university appointed people to liaise with the media, and later to study interdisciplinary science – the very things for which I’d campaigned as a student.
Q. Your book explodes a number of common myths and misconceptions. What commonly repeated misconceptions annoy you the most?
A. Oh, there are so many that perplex me. There is a great vogue for replacing plastic with paper, though the manufacture of paper is far more damaging to the environment (plastic is a by-product of the petrochemical industry) and waste plastic is more sensibly seen as a valuable raw material for highways and homes, reducing the need for quarries. Another would be the Amazon rainforest as the ‘lungs of the earth’. It’s not true. No forest bequeaths oxygen to our atmosphere. Our oxygen came from microbes millions of years ago; for over 40 years I have explained that all the oxygen a tree gives out during its growth is consumed as it degrades at the end of its life. The clearance of rain-forests for farms is deplorable when we consider the effects on wildlife; but it was our greedy capitalists that destroyed all our rain-forest areas (along with the swampy fens, which were cleared of their local inhabitants, drained and put to pasture). Our predecessors justified this destruction as wealth creation. Those Brazilians are following our example, and so on. You won’t find others extolling my points of view – that’s the joy of being truly independent in science.
Q. What areas of scientific advancement do you find most exciting at present, and which areas do you think require the plug to be pulled?
A. Most exciting? Solid-state physics, antimicrobials, quantum computing, genetics (we’ve hardly started). Need closing down? Travelling to Mars – a ridiculous waste of money: the single (or two) astronauts will bring back pictures and samples for the rest of us to see, but we can get those by landing spacecraft. Only the astronauts would actually be there to ‘see’ anything, and what benefit is that? And wasteful physics projects like the Large Hadron Collider which was going to open the door to new physics. All of its output re-affirms the Standard Model; it has cost billions, obliges us to pay thousands of enthusiasts, and has achieved nothing useful. Corporate research generates its own momentum … they are now planning one that’s even bigger. We have better things to do with our limited money than indulge these theorists with their pet hobby. And you didn’t ask the best question: what areas aren’t we looking at, which we should? I’ll give you two. The first is my research into the intelligence of the living cell. This is an area crying out for attention. It revolutionises how we look at life. The second is geothermal energy. Right beneath our feet is unlimited heat energy just waiting to be tapped. Independent thinking – that’s the way to go.