How about reading a book on ‘experts’ or better still, how about interviewing the author of a newly revised version of the wonderfully illustrative book called Nonscience Returns?
Author Brian J. Ford, certainly has been around the block, a certified scientist versed in editing whole encyclopaedias with enough knowledge crammed into his cranium that it sometimes can be seen overflowing out his ears.
The original Nonscience book dates from 1971, and caused a sensation. It was translated, featured on television, and enthusiastically reviewed. To celebrate its fiftieth birthday it is being republished, with updates for each chapter to show how its predictions came true—and the COVID-19 pandemic makes it particularly timely.
Reading through Nonscience Returns, one is struck with how little has changed in the world of experts even though much muck has passed under the sewer of history since the 1970s.
The Daily Squib Presents an Exclusive Interview with ‘Nonscience Returns’ Author Professor Brian J. Ford
Editor – Aur Esenbel: Thank you for the opportunity to read your new book Nonscience Returns, and the ‘nonscientific’ honour of interviewing you. One thing that struck me immediately was that much of what you write has been touched upon in some shape or form by the Daily Squib with regard to these ‘experts’ who seem to rule our world these days, and who we mock periodically with select satirical articles.
Author – Brian J. Ford: What’s that? Much of what I write has been mentioned in your esteemed columns? Some of it, perhaps … ‘much‘ is a bit much.
AE: Fair enough…Firstly, would you at any time describe yourself as an ‘expert on experts’ after writing this book? I’d have to say yes, although you can always prove me wrong with your answer.
BJF: Reviewers of the original edition made this comparison, but it would be safer (and more honest) to say that I am merely a commentator – someone simply studying them and satirizing what they do. Everyone knows the story about the glass that’s half-full (if you’re an optimist) or half-empty (if you’re pessimistic). An engineer would say the glass was the wrong size, while if you’re a traditional scientist the glass is completely full anyway because the lower portion is filled with liquid, the upper part full of air. But—if you are an Expert—then this could make you money and fame. You launch a new study called Containeristic Fluidistical Volumetricationalised Disproportionality and claim funding running into millions and lasting for years. Experts confuse everyone with long words and cash in on the results. The Human Genome Project had a budget of $3 billion dollars but independent investigator Craig Venter raced ahead quicker at a cost of just $100,000,000 – one-thirtieth of the cost.
AE: Bertrand Russell wrote of a world ruled by experts in his 1931 book The Scientific Outlook where he envisioned a future society ruled by experts, a coterie of grandiose manipulator idealists who control all aspects of science, war, propaganda and education. One of the many roles of these ‘experts’ is ultimately to indoctrinate the masses in loyalty and worship of a world government under the guise of a democracy. The plutocracy will rule, although eventually, Russell comes to the conclusion that the plutocrats (globalists) themselves will become too stupid and lazy thus relinquishing complete control to the experts. Do you think we are coming close to this vision of human society that Russell hypothetically wrote about in 1931?
BJF: Ever since science became linked to power and money, people have been exploiting it for personal gain. Russell was far from being the first to write in that way. Back in 1700, in a much-neglected work entitled The Transactioneer by William King, you will read of the Royal Society’s science being made ‘mighty Mysterious, and above the reach of Gentlemen’. Jonathan Swift famously satirized the hold scientists had on society in Gulliver’s visit to Laputa in 1726. In an academy in the town of Lagado, Swift had self-indulgent experimenters carrying out ridiculous experiments. Some turned out differently to what he would have expected: Swift wrote of trying to change human excretion back into food, and there was an April Fool’s Joke depicting just that made in Japan some years ago. His fictitious experiment of trying to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers has resonances in present-day solar cells! Many later works looked at a society controlled by perverted science; from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells in 1895 to Jack London’s The Iron Heel of 1907 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We in 1920. When Bertrand Russell wrote of a regulated and amoral future for society he was echoing a current preoccupation of his time, and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World came out a year later. But satirizing the misuse of science, as I’ve done in my book, is rich in resonances of our age. I’m told it is the first since Swift; if it is, then what an honour that would be.
AE: Congratulations are in order for your efforts in satirizing the misuse of science. In your book you write about the old scientific methods, and then, the new experts, who are basically walking memory machines able to spout out rote ingested data at the drop of a hat and a hefty deposit into their bank accounts. These automatons seem to lack the qualities that define true scientific principles like integrity, creativity, innovation, and originality, serving no other purpose but to read from memory whole bits of mainly useless information that the general masses do not understand but believe unquestionably. In the future, with the advent of artificial intelligence, and its possible sentient awakening, the aware and conscious AI will be able to spout the same information as the human experts of today with more efficacy and authority. Would this mean the photographic memories of the human experts will eventually be superseded by much faster more intelligent talking expert robots or will human experts always have an upper hand over the dastardly AI machines?
BJF: Superseding human understanding with external points of reference hashappened ever since we moved on from purely verbal transmission of traditions down the generations and started writing them up in reference books. That goes back to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder and is over 1,940 years old! AI is the wrong term. It isn’t ‘intelligence’ it’s digital automation. We have always tended to see new developments in terms of those with which we are familiar. Nylon was always called ‘artificial silk’ and plastic-covered shelving as ‘artificial wood’, just as a car was a ‘horseless carriage’ when in fact these were all brand-new developments. Not mere versions of what went before. If AI was ‘intelligent’ it could improve your sex-life, find your car keys, fix the leak in your roof or calm your children. All it can accomplish is (for instance) beat a human at chess or playing Go. We are always told that AI can do all sorts of things no human can ever accomplish. But so can a stapler, or a thumb-tack. Or a saw.
AE: To become a memory crunching expert in a particular field is no mean feat, as you describe in your book, and the pay is very handsome. How much do you think these experts value their bank accounts and quaestuary pursuits over the mantle of real science?
BJF: Careful! If you’re going to drop words like quaestuary into the dialogue people might think you’re trying to impress them by emulating one of my Experts. Nonscience is ruled by money, sure, but outside of America personal wealth is less regarded. What matters is having the best institute, the most prestigious employer, the most eye-catching equipment and the longest list of bibliographical references cited in the literature. People aren’t after a huge house and swimming pool. They’re after exposure, prestige and fame.
AE: You are partly correct in your assumption, the word ‘quaestuary’ was inserted purely to see your reaction, I assume you had to look it up. Jacques Ellul wrote about scientific technique in his 1964 book The Technological Society concerning the modern tech age and how our lives are getting invariably easier through the efficient use of technology yet harder in other ways. Will we all end up in the future as these big blobs like in the film WALL-E sitting around all day eating and having experts tell us how to live every aspect of our lives, so we do not have to think or do anything for ourselves?
BJF: That’s how it would seem. This is the logical conclusion. As it is, the technology that was supposed to make life easier so often does the converse. When I computerized my operation in 1993, I was assured I was entering the paperless office. Au contraire – wiser initiates warned me that my use of paper would go up five-fold. And they were right. Our homes are filled with technology these days, our offices humming with digital devices; yet everybody works harder (and for longer) than ever before. Look up C Northcote Parkinson’s writing. He coined what became known as ‘Parkinson’s Law’ which said that work expands to fill the time available. As it happens, I knew Cyril Parkinson very well in his later years – and everything he prophesied came true.
AE: One minute I read in a mainstream paper that nuts are good for me, then the next day another expert says they are bad for me. Why the confusing message from experts? Is this some kind of method of control through confusion?
BJF: Hah! I once said – oh, let me look it up: ‘Not so long ago everyone knew that … to stay healthy you should give up bread and potatoes. Now [we are told] we need plenty of – potatoes and bread’. That was from The Food Book which I wrote in 1986. Indeed, in my new book I have contrary advice given by specialists in every discipline. Overweight people live longer, or shorter, lives; you need to be happy, or pessimistic; sleep longer, or shorter; avoid (or drink) coffee and alcohol; and you can live longer – say the reports – if you like cheese, walk fast, go to gigs, babysit your grandchildren, or smell other people’s farts. You’ll find those from page 185 in the book, if you want to check them out. Experts love confusing the public. It’s what the game is all about.
AE: These days in schools, pupils get prizes for everything they do, probably even for farting.
BJF: Now, doesn’t that tie in neatly?
AE: Watching the yearly A-level results coming in where everyone gets an A grade is particularly nauseating. Many of these students would not be able to complete an O-level from 1980. Bertrand Russell’s book The Impact of Science on Society states that in a perceived future scientific dictatorship that scientific experts would be able to indoctrinate children from an early age to describe snow as black if they so wish. Are we getting to these levels now within our own dumbed-down indoctrinated society, the experts rule with such an authority and manipulative linguistic technique that they can basically state whatever they want and it will be believed without question?
BJF: You’re right. It is approaching that stage. I hope that Nonscience Returns will provide the antidote. Dumbing down is real. Once in a major article for the Daily Mail I compared questions on similar topics over the decades. (see: http://www.brianjford.com/wexam01.htm). In 1894 a 16-year-old would have been asked: ‘On a steamer which is moving with the velocity of 15 miles an hour a man crosses the deck in a direction at right angles to the steamer’s motion with a velocity of 10 feet per second. Find his resultant velocity.’ By 1994 the boat question became: ‘When Bill moored his yacht for the night, he found it very hard to sleep because the boat was rocked by waves. Explain why Bill’s yacht always returned to the upright position after the passage of a wave.’ The present-day syllabus teaches youngsters next to nothing about what they need to know to live adult lives. Meanwhile we pointlessly big them up, calling pupils ‘students’ (a term I have even heard used for seven-year-olds). Today’s schools are just a nationalised babysitting service for working parents. We have the bizarre spectacle of 21st century people being taught by 20th century teachers from a 19th century timetable based on 18th century values and geared to 17th century seasons, when children had a long summer break (to help bring in the harvest) with holidays at Easter and Christmas (to worship in church). I’ll bet today’s youngsters learned far more being out of school during lockdown.
AE: You write about this whole COVID-19 mess we’re all in at the moment in the book, and the deep confusion, as well as costly mistakes made by the so-called experts leading thousands to their early deaths. Are there ever any repercussions for experts or are they similar to those CEOs of failing companies given golden handshakes? What is the worst thing that can happen to an expert?
BJF: The worst thing that can happen to an Expert is to be found out committing fraud. People have faked their research, stolen research from others, been caught stealing money in huge amounts, even – through bad design, incompetent administration, or flagrant dishonesty – causing thousands of people to die. But (being an Expert) you can easily get away with anything. Just say that ‘lessons have been learned’, or that ‘I cannot comment on individual cases,’ or perhaps ‘it is time to draw a line under it and move on’ and you will probably be fine. Chances are you’ll get away with it; the worst that can happen is that you may have to retire early. Experts can get away with anything – even being found out.
AE: Would you say that a Kardashian-esque Americanised dumbed-down culture via an all encompassing U.S. media machine which churns out clichéd banal clickbait detritus across the globe daily has contributed highly to the fall in overall standards in intellect, language and dissemination of knowledge over the last few decades? Instead of the soundbite culture of banal news stories, and proliferation of nonscientific information the Americans have wrought on culture, would things have been different if Britain had ruled the internet and global media, before it had itself become infected?
BJF: The biggest mistake the Western world made was to think of America as a country worth copying. And the biggest mistake America made was to think it provided an example to the world. President Trump once said something both wise, and accurate. In 2016 he claimed that America was a third world country. He’s right. The USA is just that – a third world country with a blinkered vision and no sense of proportion. Britain created the modern technological world and bequeathed its culture to the globe. We gave them science, we created today’s democratic government, and even gave the world today’s mainstream sports! Jet airliners and antibiotics, football and cricket, industry and a two-chamber government, assembly-line production and automation, athletics and formal attire … the legacy of Britain created today’s world. Whether our weakly educated and constrained population could ‘rule the internet’ I doubt; it’s something designed to get away from being ruled! But the role of America is dubious and the sooner the world realises that, the better for us all (end of rant).
AE: Here is an example of one of the Daily Squib’s satirical Nonscience stories about some impractical piece of machinery called the Large Hadron Collider that cost trillions. Our story stipulated that now the overpaid scientists have supposedly found the ‘god particle’ which they never did, the LHC will be put to better use either as a very expensive toaster or trying to find one of the biggest mysteries of all time — where a woman’s g-spot is located? The question is, who funds these immense costly research projects, and why?
BJF: All power to your journalistic elbow. The European Large Hadron Collider is a ridiculous waste of money and pays physicists for discovering nothing of much interest to anybody. The running costs alone are a billion dollars a year. They once published a paper with over 5,000 separate authors. Yet none of the promised new discoveries has been made. And the only reason there isn’t an outcry is because nobody understands anything about it. It is a colossal confidence trick. And, what’s worse, they are currently budgeting for a much bigger one … and nobody in the media, other than outrageous campaigners like the Daily Squib, raises an objection. I could go on. The toaster idea is excellent and could give us something useful. But that elusive g-spot? Big mistake: it doesn’t exist. This is part of the mistaken belief that living systems are really mechanical, with buttons to press and nerves to jingle. Orgasms, massive, life-threatening, enduring orgasms, come from the communion of souls, not the jangling of nerves. They are so much more than mere copulation. And they endure through every age of life in their own all-encompassing ways. Actually, this topic would be a book in itself, but – every time I think about writing it – I get overcome with tingly feelings and we all know what hap-pens then.
AE: We are now ruled by algorithms written by Silicon Valley teenagers who have little or no life experience, let alone a deep understanding of history, science or humanity. To this end, the Daily Squib has had a hard time of it on the internet because the algorithms written have no understanding of context, pathos, rhetoric, sarcasm, exaggeration, irony; nor can they distinguish satire from a regular news story or ‘fake news’. If one were to ask one of these googlers who Juvenal was they would have a blank look on their faces, before of course searching on Wikipedia. Would it not be refreshing to live in a world where scientific people of real knowledge made the algorithms instead of the semi-literate pip squeaks of today?
BJF: The algorithm is the most insidious concoction of the digital era. Algorithms are always written by youngsters, because youngsters are cheap. It is algorithms that made those Boeing airliners crash, when the pilots couldn’t pull up the nose of the plane. Algorithms have taken over the control of modern ships, which has resulted in fatal collisions, near-disastrous failure of cruise ships either out at sea or running into a dock while the captain was unable to do anything to control it. The public need to have algorithms demystified. Fortunately, this is one of the services I have thoughtfully provided in Nonscience Returns. Perhaps we can hope for some insight and sanity in the years ahead. I do hope so.
AE: Thank you Brian for giving up your precious time to be interviewed. I would have liked to ask you a lot more than I have. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nonscience Returns but alas my brain just had a bout of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia…one Cornetto too many..(bows out ungracefully)
BJF: Ice cream? What a good idea. In the light of our conversation, I’ll have one – with a flake.
(We leave the esteemed Professor Ford to hurriedly pursue a Mr Whippy icecream van as the sound of the siren call of its ominous tune entices from the near distance)
End of Interview
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian J. Ford has frittered away his life creating a new multidisciplinary approach to science. He is the person who first introduced laws governing the safe handling of viruses and bacteria, and went on to demonstrate intelligence in microbes. He has answered puzzles like the evolution of giant dinosaurs, spontaneous human combustion, coagulation of the blood, the development of the microscope, and scores of other topics. He edits encyclopaedias, was science editor for Guinness World Records (and wrote their New Quiz Book); presented his own BBC shows Science Now and Where Are You Taking Us?, hosted Food for Thought on Channel Four, and even had his own television game-show; he has visited most countries in the world and has lectured internationally for decades—the leading cruise lines have him as their celebrity speaker. Professor Ford has appeared on Today and Any Questions? while writing reports on the EU’s nuclear research, bed-bugs, conservation, algae, locust breeding, and Lithuanian politics. He appeared on the satirical programme Week In, Week Out, has done stand-up comedy, written for New Scientist and Scientific American, and writes a controversial column in The Microscope journal (search for ford CF01.htm). Brian J. Ford has connections with many universities and the popular An Evening With Brian at the Inter/Micro conference in Chicago has run for over 30 years. His books (approaching 40 of them) have been published in about 150 editions around the world. Curtis Press approached him about a new book, but all he’d agree to was a reprint of
one he’d written earlier. Typical.
Purchase your copy of Nonscience Returns direct from Curtis Press now and have it delivered from 1 October 2020. Use discount code : NonscienceSquib25