This sort of imagery from the great sage and original architect of the scientific method should surely give us, its uneasy heirs and successors, some pause for thought. For the reaction against scientific triumphalism is in evidence all around us. In December 2006 The Discovery Institute, in Seattle, headquarters of a creationist foundation, started sending its materials into British schools. The vast majority simply ignored them. 16 sent them back. 59 quietly started using them.
Midgley was asked to write a pamphlet on the subject for the use of teachers and civil servants having to deal with the Intelligent Design issue. “A couple of bogus arguments about how various microbiological things are so complex that they couldn’t have been made without being designed. This is the old God of the Gaps theory. That if you don’t know something happened, then God did it didn’t he. I had rather hoped I could be reasonably balanced – but there’s no way you can be. This stuff is rubbish. But I do think we have to ask ourselves why it is going over so big, and the reason I think is the presence as an alternative to this thing which people have been told is Darwinism. Quite a lot of scientists, not only Dawkins, do go on in this way, as if it were a known scientific fact that life is meaningless and purposeless and religion is a ‘mistake’. So a lot of my effort with that pamphlet went into pointing out how this is not science.”
The style of argument should be becoming familiar by now. Fully engaged but reluctant to ‘skim’, a relish in bringing the broadest possible view and rigorous intellectual standards to bear on our troubled times. I’ll end with part of the discussion we had about whether, as a journalist who writes about the environment, I should continue to fly.
She began with an analogy from another area of special interest. “You see my approach to animal rights is rather like this: I don’t reckon that absolute vegetarianism is the point. I think it’s much more important to be shouting in the right places and bringing change about – do something about the lives of animals now. Refraining from things is only one element. So for example at Wytham near Oxford, there’s the Farm Animal Initiative, what used to be the University Farm. And the point of it is to show that you can treat animals better and still be profitable. And they are very good at doing that.
“They are working with Temple Grandin. She is allegedly autistic but she communicates pretty well and what she says is that as an autistic person she has more understanding of how animals feel. She is an American and works there [in the US] to make conditions more tolerable in stockyards in the approach to slaughter. She knows a lot about what cattle mind and what they don’t. This is in the stockyard’s interests too: what often happens if the conditions are wrong is that the beasts get very restless and thunder around and can’t be got to where they are needed and people beat them and things get worse and worse.
“She has convinced McDonalds to say to their suppliers if you do not meet Temple Grandin’s standards we’ll find a supplier who will. For instance, the stunning pistol with which it has to be stunned, ought to work the first time it is used at least 95% of the time. It used to work about 30% of the time. And you can imagine you see.
“Now I think Temple Grandin would much rather that these creatures weren’t being killed at all. But she thinks – if they are being killed they don’t have to have such a hell of a time. She came to this conference I went to at Wytham with the people who are running it over here, and there was present the chief executive of McDonalds in this country, who has now also signed up. Are you not surprised?””Well, there was that book of Eric Schlosser’s – Food Nation – about American hamburgers and what goes into them…””A lot of people have said how bad it is but this particular way of making it not so bad – this is why it suits me so well. I like reforms which start with the worst things and make the worst things better. And once you’ve got the worst things better it makes it much more likely you’ll be able to get further. If you merely burn down people’s houses you don’t cut much ice. The person running the Farm Animal Initiative in Oxford is Marianne Dawkins, who’s the first wife of our friend…. Anyway she’s written very good books about animal suffering. She is able to adopt a wonderfully scientific tone such that she actually proves that the animals suffer to people who would not have believed it if you or I said ‘Well they obviously suffer’. She’s very good at that. There are tests which can be done and if you take these tests you find, surprise surprise, that animals do actually suffer. These books – she has written several over a long time – they have had quite an effect – because there has been this extraordinary affectation among psychologists that animals are almost unconscious.
“You see this is all by way of getting back to the question you raised about flying. It’s really a question about what one’s to do when the culture within which one is to act, is so corrupt that you have to use corrupt means. In a way the language that Marianne Dawkins uses is ‘crooked’ – it would be much better in a way to say – go to Hell – you know – don’t be ridiculous – but you can’t. You have to go round, you have to go round the trackways these people use and rout them out by making suitable noises. And similarly you see Temple Grandin is working with McDonalds, and with the stockyard people. There are quite a lot of people concerned about animal rights who say – you mustn’t do that – you can’t handle these – you know – your hands are dirty if you try to forward this process.
“Now the people who got sued and resisted McDonalds [McLibel trial] also did a splendid job. Of course. I mean I’m not saying that there’s one way of doing things. But the fact that you have to use something that really shouldn’t be there, in the process, I think ought not to be fatal. I mean I haven’t really thought out your particular problem about flying to places. But I do think that for journalists to be reporting on what’s going on is enormously important, for you to make the contacts that you’re making…”
I’m still not sure how convinced I am by this but it illustrates very well the more general point I’ve tried to make here. The case she’s making assumes an engaged, intelligent audience, capable of following the thread of an argument which may or may not suit its particular prejudices. It is wary of extreme positions. Public intellectuals who remain not just ‘engaged’ but connected up with the longest possible view of their civilisation – its prospects as well as its past – should be valued. Midgley has continued trusting in the relevance of serious and wide-ranging intellectual work, as much of the culture around her has found more amusing ways to divert itself. She has preserved her subtlety and edge from the worst effects of that dire blend of scientism, economy-speke and journalistic bluster which pervades so much of our lives, each modestly presenting its claims as those of ‘reality’. Hers is a tone we can learn from, whether we share Midgley’s particular preoccupations or not. We should listen more to voices like this.