The MWS Podcast 50: Michael Brooks on the role and state of science

The science writer Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics  and as well as authoring several popular science books including, The Secret Anarchy of Science,  the bestselling 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense and At the Edge of Uncertainty, he’s also written the novel Entanglement. In addition, he’s a journalist and broadcaster. He regularly writes for the Guardian,  he’s a former feature editor of the New Scientist magazine and writes a weekly column for the New Statesman.  Michael is here to talk to us about the state and role of science today, how one goes about doing good science, some pitfalls to avoid and what the future may hold for this fascinating field of human endeavour.

MWS Podcast 50: Michael Brooks as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_50_Michael_Brooks

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

2 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 50: Michael Brooks on the role and state of science

  1. Congratulations on your 50th podcast Barry! You’ve now covered an astonishing range of topics and interviews, giving a good impression of the breadth of potential engagement with the Middle Way. There’s not much on physical science, though, so it’s good to have this one.

    I found this interview interesting, and especially resonated with what Michael said about over-specialisation and about widespread reliance on an information paradigm. The Dan Siegel talk embedded below here challenges the view of the mind on which that’s based, which seems to be based on a left-hemisphere biased view of the mind. We have created computers that are modelled on only half of our minds (the information processing half) and then assume that the whole of our minds are like this external model.

    Where I’d disagree with Michael is when you asked him a series of questions about the impact of philosophy of science and of ethical questions. I took these to be moral questions, or at least questions including a moral component, asking whether scientists **should** be responding to these further questions. Michael responded to these questions, though, just with pointing out the difficulties, and of how unlikely he thought it was the scientists would actually respond to these wider points given their over-specialised training system and social context. I agree that it’s important to take this actual situation into account, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that scientists are putting themselves in an inadequate position here, for both moral and scientific reasons that are ultimately not separable. That inadequacy of approach offers the basis of saying that scientists **should** be stretching their practice far more to recognise the limitations of their paradigms and the value assumptions they are making. There are also practical ways of making this happen in the long-term if there is a wide enough recognition of the need for it. You need to reform the educational system that produces scientists in the first place so that it is not so narrowly focused, and everyone gets some philosophical study.

    It would also have been interesting to ask Michael if he recognises a distinction between scientific method and scientific naturalism, and what he makes of the fact-value distinction (though I understand that there was probably not enough time for this). These are immediate issues that every scientist needs to be aware of, and should not just be left to (equally over-specialised) philosophers.

    1. Hi, just a quick reply to one of the points, as that’s all I’ve got time for at the moment.

      I agree that there is a huge hole in science education, which has ramifications for the way science eventually gets done. For starters, people with interest in human issues get filtered out into the humanities – you can’t train as a lawyer/ethicist/philosopher and as a scientist. Second, research shows that a large proportion of those who end up in science are introverts or less socially skilled, so their focus when they eventually get to run a research project is no doubt skewed by that. But perhaps the biggest problem is that all of today’s scientists have been educated within a paradigm where science is vaunted as the best way to solve the world’s problems. It’s an attitude that was born after the second world war as a direct attack on the hatred and mistrust of science created during the war (think mustard gas, A-bombs, Nazi experiments, Japanese POW experiments, rockets…). This creates a false perspective on what science can and can’t achieve.

      I explore all this in Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science.

      In short, I would be very interested to see a skeleton of science education formulated not by the science establishment, but by philosophers and ethicists – I think we might be pleasantly surprised by the products of such a system.

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