Theatre of dreams: The results of an fMRI scan (Wellcome Collection)
"I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by scientific prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to honours."
Dr Johnson didn't say "scientific" (he said "literary"), and the word "poetical" came before "honours", yet his message still applies. Today there is a common reader of science. The trouble is that even when popularised its "refinements of subtility" can place it further beyond reach than those of literature.
As a minister for science I was acutely aware of this. Had I been able to rely on scientists themselves for rational and detached advice — what else are they for? — things would have been simpler, but my impressions of those I met convinced me of two things: their awesome intelligence and real achievements, but in some cases an equally awesome propensity to overweening ambition and incurable condescension towards the common man.
I arrived with my own prejudices. As a diplomatic specialist in Communism, in China and the Soviet Union I had witnessed at first hand the biggest live experiment in history, as more than a billion human beings, caged in their own countries like laboratory mice, were subjected to the parascientific creed of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism. (The term parascience, nicely evocative of paranormal and la pataphysique, I borrow from Absence of Mind, essays on science and religion by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010.) Of the outcome — some hundred million dead, three million in China during 1966-69 the years I was there — there is little more to be said, except to recall how many Western scientists, some eminent, went along with the experiment in the face of the scepticism of Johnson's common reader.