Decolonising science

Rewritten histories of science, outdated religious shibboleths and notorious omissions


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10

Decolonising science

The woke agenda poses a threat to science and maths that is, if anything, even more fundamental than that to the humanities reported by David Butterfield (HOLLOWED-OUT HUMANITIES, MARCH).

Scepticism has been recognised as the bedrock of “natural philosophy” since the days of Galileo and Pope Urban but “inclusion” may now require physics and aboriginal legends to be afforded equal status in the science curriculum.

In 2022, two professors resigned rather than be effectively forced out of the Royal Society of New Zealand for questioning teaching the equal validity of Maori mythology with scientific method.

Meanwhile in the UK, “decolonisation” has become a euphemism for “racism”. Chemists at the University of York are engaged in an Orwellian rewriting of history intended to purge significant white males from the textbooks.

The head of department, Professor Caroline Dessent, acknowledges that, “Decolonization is one of those things that currently does attract a certain amount of negative publicity. Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve through it.”

Or maybe we do. This is not the first time fanatics have sought to remove references to an ethnic group from the scientific literature. In the 1930s, the Nazis supported attempts to contrive a Deutsche Physik, which rejected anything associated with what they called “Jewish Physics”.

Maths is suffering a similar assault. Professor John Parker, head of mathematical sciences at Durham University, has lamented the prominence of “French or German men” such as Georg Cantor, Henri Poincaré and Carl Fredrich Gauss, “all of whom were white”.

The first two may be unfamiliar to many readers, but they illustrate very well what we stand to lose. Cantor’s work on infinities — some are bigger than others — had philosophical and religious implications that went beyond the purely mathematical.

In the resulting uproar, Poincaré described his ideas as “a grave disease infecting the discipline of mathematics”.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the scientists and natural philosophers of the past are worthy of study because “you understand science by looking at the history of science”.

Sadly, our young people may never know of the serendipity, insights, blind alleys and good, hard slog that have characterised the subject through the ages. And they will certainly miss out on a few entertaining spats.

Dr Iain Salisbury

Superannuated creed

Marcus Walker (DUMBING DOWN THE PRIESTHOOD, MARCH) writes that Christianity today has a crisis of belief. The Church itself is the cause of this crisis. Despite the scholarship of the last two centuries, its theology and liturgy are still anchored in the outdated shibboleth which the Emperor imposed on his squabbling bishops at Nicaea.

No wonder that fewer and fewer people find it relevant to their lives. One of my children remarked that attending a Eucharist was like going into a foreign country. Insistence on orthodox belief in religion is generally misplaced. What you believe doesn’t matter: what counts is the way a person conducts themselves and their relations with their fellow human beings. The tragedy is that there is no other organisation to do the important work that the Church still does in the parishes: the “Cure of Souls” with love.

Michael Hell

One step beyond

In his lament concerning the possible abandonment of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England (THE END OF PEVSNER, FEBRUARY), Charles Saumarez Smith notes how the expansion of “deliberately terse and telegraphic entries” produced “a much bigger and more ambitious enterprise”.

If this celebrated series survives, I hope the opportunity will be taken to remedy some notorious omissions. I imagine many users of Pevsner will have their favourite lacuna but mine is an extravagant Arts & Crafts house, Brackencliffe, at the southernmost extremity of Scarborough’s South Bay.

One of the grandest domestic constructions from the resort’s glory years (1905), it was designed by Walter Brierley, known as “the Lutyens of the North”. Yet there is not a trace in the slender volume Yorkshire: The North Riding. A possible explanation can be found in Pevsner’s “perambulation” of the town described as “long … and strenuous”. It appears that Brackencliffe was a building too far for Pevsner.

Christopher Hirst
Hunmanby, North Yorkshire

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