Wednesday 17 September 2008

On certainty, politeness and science

I watched the editor of Debretts on TV this morning arguing that political correctness has meant the end of politeness. I forebore from using the various expletives that came to my mind, but I do think he is talking rot.

What he is talking about, of course, is the fact that men no longer lift their hats to women, open doors for them, or offer them their seats on trains. And there was the predictable woman interviewee who is very disappointed that that no longer happens, because she doesn't feel the slightest bit belittled when it does. And the man who doesn't do it, because he has no idea if he's going to offend the woman by doing so. So far so good. But to say that that is the end of politeness is, to put it in a Boris way, piffle. The whole purpose of politeness is to make other people feel comfortable. It involves actually thinking about other people, paying attention to them. Not a knee jerk reaction that, as soon as I see a woman, I get to my feet, whether she wants me to or not.

Politeness as such grew in the days when strangers (usually men) began to mingle in public and it was a way of enabling people who hadn't been introduced to get on with each other. The hat lifting form of politeness was the gift wrapping around the carefully unacknowledged fact that men had a lot more power than women. Men do, unfortunately, still have more power than women, but not so much as they used to, and that fact grates on some people and causes uncertainty in others. And when people are made to feel uncertain, they get resentful. I find that after going through a period of uncertainty, and therefore inaction, myself, I now open doors and offer seats when I think people need it. I do so for men and women, the young and the old. I still remember when I was working as a receptionist dealing with a child at the desk, and a woman walked up behind the child and started speaking at me straight over the child's head. Yes, I am going to stereotype, but she looked like the kind of woman who would have been livid if a child had done that to her. Politeness should work for everybody, and I try and make sure it does.

I can appreciate that many people feel the difficulty of being uncertain about it. All I can do is suggest they work on it.

I think the same issue about uncertainty is at the root of the popularity of creationism. It is, frankly, in my opinion a recipe made by idiots but welcome to a large number of people precisely because it offers certainty in an apparently increasingly uncertain world. Certainty becomes more attractive than truth, particularly when truth is so complicated. I also think that its popularity is due to it not having been taken on properly by the scientific establishment. We have to find ways of presenting the truth more photogenically. It's not easy to tell the truth about the way the universe was made in a couple of short snappy sentences. It is easy to give the story told by creationism in a couple of short snappy sentences and people delight in doing it, to the detriment of the intelligence of their listeners in the end.

There is also the issue, I think, that science has become frightened of taking creationism on. Lots of people avoid criticising Islam today for fear, not so much of giving offence, as of the furore that will ensue. Today's reports of Sadiq Khan's remarks and the robust responses to him on both sides of the argument are typical of the kind of dust up that people don't want to get into. Similarly, I can imagine that a lot of science teachers don't want to have to deal with regular rants from committed creationist parents if they put a foot "wrong" in a biology lesson.

But there comes a time when you have to start standing up for what you believe in. Science teachers do need to refer to creationism, rather than completely avoiding it. They don't need to "teach" it, but they do need to tackle it in order to point out the difference between the way science works and the way creationism works. And I don't believe the Royal Society should have sacked Professor Reiss just for saying so (though exactly what he said is not easy to ascertain).

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