“Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.”
25 years ago I was a mediocre Zoology student at The University of Glasgow and also a fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Last night I returned to the campus to see Rob Newman’s new standup show which has been upsetting a few people (myself included) based on some print stuff and the car-crash interview with Richard Coles on Saturday Live on R4 last week.
I wanted to give him a fair hearing and I have to say first of all that I really enjoyed the show a lot. He did two halves of 45 minutes each and throughout this spun an absurdist historical, philosophical and political tale that was obviously heartfelt and often very, very funny. The majority of the evolutionary stuff was in the first half and he did seem a little bit nervous about it to me. Perhaps he thought the audience would be filled with a load of hard-headed determinist students but in the end the only trouble he had was with a drunk near the front who he offered £25 to “Fuck off”! As far as I could see he was starting out from an entirely justifiable point of view that a lot of people nowadays seem to think that nature is dog eat dog then they are justified having a personal morality and politics that are similarly selfish. The question is where does the blame lie for that?
He started off by creating an obviously fictional world where he was doing “research” and presenting his “findings” to various Scientific Journals and Societies and Richard Dawkins was a humourless pedant naked wrestling with his postman on a daily basis. All good stuff and very funny. Where he went off the rails a bit was when he started to blur the line between absurdity and seeming to try and make legitimate counter-arguments to the current scientific consensus and started to go into conspiracy theory territory. As Dr Adam Rutherford said:
“If you are going to base a show and an argument on an individual whose work has been meticulously scrutinised for decades, you’d better understand the work, and have something robust, and hopefully new to say.”
In his defense there’s a lot more in the show than criticism of Dawkins and I would say that the show was working perfectly well as a funny critique of a kind of nihilistic amorality that is prevalent in society now without pushing the blame for that onto some imaginary cabal of scientists which Dawkins is the ringleader. I would be more inclined to blame the popular media for distorting science like they do every other area of human endeavour. Obviously Dawkins IS the de facto ringleader of a worldwide atheist movement and is often a rather humourless pedant and lacking in human empathy (I have in the past likened him to Mr Logic from Viz comic) BUT he is an extraordinarily clear and easy writer to read if you make the effort and I am always puzzled by the misunderstandings of his writing. I wish he’d give up on the atheism stuff and get back to promoting science to the general public which is his real gift. Similarly Rob Newman’s real gift is not as a scientist but a purveyor of a strange blend of clever, surreal humour with a social conscience and a few adjustments to this show would make it an even stronger piece of work.
One of the great things about comedy is that you can illuminate a truth by exaggeration so when he talks of the Question Time panel being a “random selection of millionaires” he is not being factually correct but expressing a very real disquiet with the spectrum of opinion the media presents to us. I don’t object to that. Similarly I don’t think a lot of Palaeontologists will complain about his excellent Flintstones joke because it is obviously a joke but when you start parroting Mary Midgely and playing hard and loose with established scientific wisdom to make a spurious connection to Thatcherism you are venturing into the tinfoil hat and sandwich board territory usually occupied by creationists.
Alexei Sayle once said (I paraphrase) that Scientists are all so very clever but, as a comedian, society cares much more about what he thinks and there’s a lot of truth, and responsibility, in that.