In the fifties and sixties, Hollywood had a penchant for producing Sci-Fi movies and television shows that proved in many cases quite popular, as in the case of “Forbidden Planet” (1956), or only moderately so, as with “X The Unknown” (1956). Sci-Fi had and still has a number of things going for it; by mixing fantasy with “science,” it manages to make us believe that the frequently unbelievable events might actually happen, a classic case of what literary criticism calls the willing suspension of disbelief.
To produce a work, or in this instance a genre, that can repeatedly move its audience to buy something via the silver screen that they would reject in broad daylight without a moments thought is, make no mistake about it, quite an accomplishment.
But, alas, the Sci-Fi fraternity of writers, directors, and producers could never completely satisfy itself with its modest achievement. It had to get political. But, lo and behold, the nuclear anxieties of the fifties and the pacifist proclivities of the sixties repaired the potholes in that bumpy road and the Politicized Sci-Fi Express rumbled on with hardly a jolt or rattle. If you don’t think so, see “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), a certifiable anti-nukes Sci-Fi drama and one fine movie: good script (well, pretty good), top-notch direction (Robert Wise, no less), and, with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, excellent actors. But the political message is simple and maybe just a little simple-minded: ban the bomb! But who cares? With Gort, the giant robot, and “Klaatu barada nicto,” it couldn’t miss.
I wish I could say the same about real scientists, but they’ve been banning the bomb for decades now with dire predictions of imminent catastrophe if their warnings are not heeded. And as for climate change (formerly known as global warming), even the University of East Anglia’s “Climategate” email scandal couldn’t divert that missile off course. But what is one to expect? Meteorology and nuclear physics are scientific fields, so there’s probably no stopping the various campaigns to save the planet. And isn’t that what science is for?
That, I suppose, is what scientists would like us to think. Nevertheless, when scientists, on or off the screen, begin sticking their noses into matters quite beyond their fields of knowledge, they, even their most celebrated figures, should lose credibility. Or, to put it another way, no willing suspension of disbelief for them. But that’s rarely what occurs.
Take Stephen Hawking. When he speaks, people listen. A few days ago in The Guardian, he wrote—and I know that in his condition the verb only approximates what he did—about two of the most pressing issues science faces today. What were they? You guessed it: the recent American presidential election and Brexit. Now Professor Hawking is a man of unusual intelligence and courage, and I’m sure he did more than read Newton and Einstein during his formative years.
But the age of the polymath is long past. Hawking once may have studied Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Marx and (one hopes, probably vainly) Von Mises in his spare time, but it’s unlikely that a man so thoroughly immersed in physics, even one who had time to serve as coxswain of an Oxford rowing team, is equally well-versed in politics.
The idea of a certain class of intellectuals rising to oracular heights is as old as Plato and probably much older. And even if Plato could claim that philosophy was both essential to and higher than politics, it’s questionable that the insight gave him the right to trace the boundaries of the ideal state for anybody. Plato’s saving grace was his recognition of the problems of the body, the limits of human power, and the claims of tradition.
In The Republic, Socrates’ naïve interlocutors may have agreed with everything their mentor said (such as agreeing to the proposition that girls and boys will exercise naked without the slightest problem), but Socrates knew one could expect only so much of philosophy.
That’s an understanding of which our modern-day scientists should take note. Hawking actually comes close although not close enough. Acknowledging that he and his fellow “theoretical physicists” often have regarded themselves as “the pinnacle,” he adds that they really should do their best to understand the “cry of anger” from the Trumpist and Brexit crowd. His conclusion that a good dose of humility is in order should not fail to hearten the reader at least somewhat. But was his revelation a permanently humbling experience? I know too little about Hawking’s life to answer that question. Perhaps the need to confess the error tells us all we need to know.
Hawking sees that people are angry because they have been ignored, but just what that “ignoring” consists of doesn’t get adequate treatment. Anger may be nothing more than an effect of Brexit and Trump’s election, but the cause goes deeper than the cry of “Listen to us.”
At the heart of these two political events is an understanding of what it means to be human. As some philosophers, some theologians, and possibly even a few scientists have understood for millennia, men have limits of body and of mind that make the use of power ever suspect. Older thinkers simply said men were not gods, and theoretical physicists, with their by now old warnings about the bomb, should know as much.
But too often, as Hawking himself suggests, they are on “the pinnacle,” and their solutions usually involve giving them and other “elites” (Hawking’s word) power. At their height, large things often appear small, even insignificant. The most notable thing about Brexit voters, namely, their insistence that the laws governing them should be legislated at home, that power should be close enough for them to manage, was completely missed by their lofty opponents. The Trump voters (I, a #NeverTrumper, was not one) are experiencing fundamentally the same thing uncomprehending opposition.
There’s a grand history of political philosophy behind the wishes of the Brexit and Trump voters, something simple anger cannot explain. It’s a philosophy that the Bible, Edmund Burke, and more recently Sir Roger Scruton have found in the “little platoons,” men and women in real communities who wish to live their lives dedicated to preserving a past inherited from their fathers as part of the future they hope to bequeath to their children.
Against them is a modern self-designated elite, whether in Washington, the academy, or Hollywood, that will gladly force society, however venerable and successful, into the straitjacket of its own perverse dreams. Stephen Hawking did well to advise humility to his cohorts, but he didn’t cry “Stop!” That necessary and humane task was left to the “little platoons,” which, beyond expectations, they managed in 2016 here and in Britain. All told, the reality proved better than fiction—even science fiction.