I have always jibbed against one of Dr Johnson’s thundering paragraphs:
"The truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions...We are perpetually moralists but we are geometricians only by chances. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary and at leisure.”
The pomposity and complacency of this pronunciamento has always outraged me. Now I know that this isn’t just a matter of personal irritation. Johnson lived before the industrial revolution, when scientists were seen as harmless amateurs, making curious discoveries “at leisure”. Most of the population are still Johnsonians but we are not living in the 18th century. Then, the world was taken to have a natural order which we puny human could hardly interfere with.
The problems the world faces in not-the-18th-century require some understanding of scientific principles that are deeply counter-intuitive. Nature works on a tiny scale. If we only know the world we can see we will never understand how it works. This is why such a large part of modern humanity scoffs at evolution and global warming. The world as we see it and what we know of history doesn’t offer much support for these ideas. But the world as we see it doesn’t offer much support to the notions that a few pounds of a certain element, uranium, can destroy a city; that complex text, images, indeed whole moving films, can be projected unseen across thousands of miles to be received by anyone one with personal device anywhere in the world; that a human disease might be caused by a single wrong genetic letter out of the 3 billion stored inside a human cell that is far too small to be seen by the eye.
Dr Johnson would probably retort that all these well attested demonstrations were very impressive but not the “great and frequent business of the human mind”. Leave it to the experts. But politicians are empowered to make crucial decisions about the planet’s destiny on the basis of the mass support they have. They quite happily disdain the advice of the experts if it interferes with their agenda or with keeping the electorate short-term happy. That an increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from 280 to 550 plus parts per MILLION should spell doom for the world is indeed outrageously counter-intuitive. Dr Johnson would have dismissed it out of hand. And if the great mass of humanity consists of Johnsonians scoffing at the counter-intuitions of science, what kind of decisions are going to result? Nostrums such as “Cut the green crap”, guaranteed to go down well in every public bar. So we reach the point where days after signing a global agreement to curb carbon emissions, the UK government cut solar panel subsidies by 65%.