More than a half century ago, the British literary critic and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis warned that science could be twisted in order to attack religion, undermine ethics, and limit human freedom. In a recent collection of essays, The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, a number of scholars explore Lewis’s prophetic warnings about the abuse of science. MercatorNet interviewed its editor, John G. West.
MercatorNet: “The Magician’s Twin” is an unusual title. How is science related to magic? Magic seems like a demented cousin, not a twin.
John G. West: The title comes from a comment made by Lewis himself in his book The Abolition of Man. There Lewis claimed that “the serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins.” I think Lewis may have been trying to be intentionally provocative, because you are right that at first glance the idea that magic and science are twins would appear to be rather odd. After all, science is supposed to be the realm of the rational, the skeptical, and the objective. Magic, on the other hand, brings up connotations of superstition, credulity, and dogmatism.
But if we think about it some more, I think we can see that Lewis was very perceptive in drawing the link. First, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can function almost like a religion for some people. We certainly see this today. Take biologist Richard Dawkins’s comment that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” or the annual celebrations of Darwin’s birthday as if it were a sacred holiday. Second, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can dull the general public’s critical faculties when they begin to accept any claim if it is made in the name of science.
Finally, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can be a quest for power over nature and our fellow human beings. Many times that power will be used for good, but if modern science is cut off from traditional ethical norms, its power may be increasingly misused. During Lewis’s own lifetime, he saw the horrific results of the misuse of science in the eugenics movement and its effort to breed a master race by applying the principles of Darwinian biology.
MercatorNet: Tell us a bit about the book and its main themes.
West: The Magician’s Twin uses the writings of C.S. Lewis to explore how science, a very good thing, can be misused, and how this misuse of science can have serious consequences for every area of our culture: ethics, religion, medicine, politics, education, and science itself. In the process of exploring this main theme, the book delves into such issues as genetic engineering, eugenics, the misuse of science to debunk religion and traditional ethics, the misuse of science to curtail personal freedom, reductionist views of personal responsibility, the education of our children, and the debate over unguided Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.
MercatorNet: Lewis was a literary scholar and a Christian apologist who died in 1963. How relevant are his ideas about science in 2013?
West: Although Lewis was a literary scholar, he was intrigued by the impact of science on culture from his days as an atheist. And so he thought deeply about the interactions between science and the rest of society, and many of the issues he explored we are still dealing with today in various forms. Science is still misused by some to debunk religion (think of all the so-called “New Atheists”). Science is, if anything, still used as a trump card in public policy debates (think of the current debates over climate change).
Scientific reductionism is still used to debunk traditional ethics and personal responsibility. And modern genetics has opened the door to the resurrection of eugenics. So I’d say that Lewis’s ideas are very relevant. Indeed, I’d argue that he was prophetic in warning about some of the things we are experiencing today.
MercatorNet: You and your fellow authors are strong critics of scientism. Does that mean that you are anti-science and anti-progress?
West: I actually regard myself as pro-science. Scientism is the abuse of science by claiming that science is the only way we can know the truth about anything. By extension, it’s also the claim that scientists should have the right to rule over society by virtue of their superior technical expertise. Just like being a critic of theocracy doesn’t make one anti-religious, being a critic of scientism doesn’t make one anti-science. If anything, it’s those who are trying to challenge scientism who are the defenders of science, because they are trying to rescue science from being applied outside its proper boundaries.
As for progress, no, I’m not against “progress” either. But, as Lewis liked to point out, progress by definition is progress towards some goal, and I think we need to make sure that the goal we are progressing towards is a worthy one. Debunking traditional ethics or restricting personal liberties in the name of science would not be “progress” in my view.
MercatorNet: His novel That Hideous Strength, in which scientists have the reins of power and culture, is one of the great dystopian novels. What was the point he was making?
West: That Hideous Strength was Lewis’s searing indictment of what he sometimes called technocracy or even scientocracy, rule by experts claiming to speak in the name of science. As Lewis’s novel shows, handing over unchecked power to unelected experts who promise to create a heaven on earth is a recipe for creating hell on earth. Lewis thought technocracy was one of the gravest threats to a free society in the modern world.
Readers who want a short distillation of Lewis’s views here should read an essay he wrote in the 1950s titled “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” In that essay, Lewis explains why scientific expertise may be helpful for public policy, but it is hardly sufficient. Good public policy requires a lot more than simply technical expertise. As Lewis points out, “government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”
MercatorNet: I’ve always been amused by the fact that the evil scientists in the novel work in NICE – the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments – and that the acronym for British government’s healthcare advisory body is also NICE. Is scientism alive and well today?
West: Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep up with all of the manifestations of scientism in our own era. Just a few days ago there was an article in The New Scientist titled “Time for science to seize political power.” A few days later, celebrated wildlife documentary-maker Sir David Attenborough was invoking science to claim that human beings “are a plague on the Earth” and therefore worldwide population control is required. In America, meanwhile, New York City has banned the sale of large sugary drinks the name of science, and the administration of President Obama is trying to compel religious employers to pay for contraceptives and abortion drugs in the name of science.
Now, my wife and I don’t let our children drink lots of sugary drinks, but banning certain kinds of soda pop in the name of science is going down the path of being micromanaged by a bunch of busy-bodies. Similarly, I’m not against contraception, but the idea that government in the name of science should trample the rights of conscience of religious believers is truly offensive. Then there is the whole debate about climate change and what should be done about it. Whatever one thinks about climate change and its causes, I would hope that all thoughtful people would be concerned when certain scientists claim that we need to suspend democracy in order to impose the public policies they want.
MercatorNet: C.S. Lewis claimed that science has made us more gullible. But how can this happen if science is based on empirical facts?
West: Lewis observed that many non-scientists simply checked their critical faculties at the door when they heard claims made in the name of science. People who didn’t think we could know anything with confidence about historical figures like Julius Caesar or Napoleon because they lived such a long time ago had no problem accepting the most outlandish claims made about “pre-historic” man, because the latter claims were dressed up as science. Lewis was concerned that this kind of blind deference to scientific authority opened the door to tyranny. That’s one of the reasons it’s so concerning today when people are routinely attacked as “anti-science” just for raising thoughtful questions about claims made in the name of science. If we want to avoid the abuse of science, we need to encourage that kind of questioning, not suppress it.
MercatorNet: I suppose that you would describe a writer like Richard Dawkins as a proponent of scientism. But are there prominent scientists who would support your critique and acknowledge that scientists can oversell their expertise?
West: There are a few. Biologist Austin Hughes recently wrote a perceptive article on “The Folly of Scientism” for The New Atlantis. The late Phil Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, was a persistent critic of some of the overstated claims of Darwinian theory. But it can be hard for scientists to criticize the limits of their own disciplines when so much research funding and prestige is at stake.
Scientists have a powerful incentive to oversell their expertise in the public arena. Embryonic stem cell research is a tragic example. Ethics aside, the real scandal of embryonic stem cell research is that so many scientists hyped the usefulness of the research based on paltry evidence. As a result, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research that thus far has proved to be a massive failure.
Not only were those funds wasted, but they prevented adequate funding for adult stem cell research, which has shown much greater promise without the ethical baggage of embryonic stem cells. Ironically, those who raised questions about all the funds being steered toward embryonic stem cell research were branded “anti-science.” But if we had followed their advice, we would have been further along in developing adult stem cell therapies that actually work.
John G. West co-edited the award-winning C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia and is the author of several other books, including Darwin Day in America and The Politics of Revelation and Reason.