For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about (very few people interrogate their anaesthetists). The reason there are 'popular science' books is that work has to be done to make science popular. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that scientists are not intent on mystifying what they do: it just is difficult to understand without the requisite education and talent. And yet it was part of the original intent of the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century that legitimate knowledge should be neither a mystery (the province of occult magicians) nor a piety (based on the authority of the Ancients, and acquired by reading their books). Shareable methods of enquiry would allow at least some people to find out things for themselves. It was, William Harvey wrote, 'base' to 'receive instructions from others' comments without examination of the objects themselves, especially as the book of Nature lies so open and is so easy of consultation'. 'Easy', though, is the word we use to describe things we have learned how to do. What people find easy is, among other things, an indicator of social class.
LRB 3 April 1997 | PDF Download