Introduction: Nature, Values, and the Future of Science
As I walked into Christopher Wren's magnificent Sheldonian Theatre to listen to the first of the 1997 Oxford Amnesty Lectures on "The Values of Science," I found myself thinking about my first chemistry lesson at school. The topic was combustion, but our teacher began with a short lecture on the nature of science. Science is based purely on observation, he said, and it goes back to the seventeenth century (just like the Sheldonian) to the "scientific revolution," in which Europe shook off the superstitions of the Dark Ages and woke up to the objective reality of the world of nature as revealed to the senses.
At the end of the lesson, our teacher told us all to write a paragraph describing what happens when a piece of paper burns, and I obediently recorded a whole range of objective facts garnered from observation: the way you strike a match and apply it, for best effect, to a torn edge of the paper; the flames that lick and flicker and vary in color from rim to centre and from tip to root; the acrid smell of the smoke; and the ragged shapes of the charred scraps left behind.
The teacher was dismayed that I had so misunderstood his point about science and observation: the facts we were meant to establish were those set out in the first chapter of our textbook, not those we knew from our own experience. I took his point and became a good enough chemistry student. But a seed of doubt had been sown in my mind: do scientists really understand the nature of their craft?
The lecture in the Sheldonian that evening was by Richard Dawkins, and he struck a note of panic that came as rather a surprise to me and, I think, to most of the rest of the audience. Instead of considering possible conflicts between modern science and human rights, he painted a portrait of contemporary scientists as a beleaguered minority, victimised by