By What Authority?

Jocelyn Bell Burnell questions authority in religion and science.

I used to be for many years the Quaker representative on the British Council of Churches. It was a good experience, but I was aware, particularly to begin with, of a sort of mismatch in where I was coming from and where the delegates from the other churches were coming from. It was a long time before I twigged what it was. And it clicked when I had a conversation with the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who also trained as a scientist, when he pointed out the following. Any church, any faith, any denomination, any sect can get its authority from one of several places: its holy writings – the Bible, the Koran; its history and traditions and, in particular, what its founder said; and thirdly, what's known technically as 'continuing revelation' – God speaking to us today. And it's because different denominations put different weights on these three that the differences occur.

For example, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland spends a lot of time considering the words in the Bible; British Quakers put a lot of emphasis on the third, continuing revelation, and pay much less attention to what the Bible says or to our traditions. So my initial problem with the British Council of Churches was that every time we had a resolution they would want to stuff a lot of biblical references in and I couldn't see why. I was born Quaker and brought up Quaker, so haven't actually a lot of experience of the other denominations, except through the ecumenical work I have done. But clearly there were different ideas of authority. In an encyclical of 1888, Pope Leo wrote: 'The highest duty is to respect authority.' – Remember the year – 1888 – because I'll come back to that. A slightly more flippant quote: 'I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don't have as many people who believe it' (George Carlin). Fair point. You actually only have as much authority as people give you. And you can lose it. It's an interesting thing, authority, it's a bit fragile, but if you're the Pope you have an enormous bevy of priests to help you keep your authority. The Dalai Lama takes a very different line: 'The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual's own reason and critical analysis.' No mention of a god, at least not directly.

However, the religious scene is changing, even in the Catholic church. You probably have heard of David Tracy, the Roman Catholic theologian from Chicago. I believe it's his quote that says: 'I'm spiritual but I'm not religious.' And there's a lot of people saying that kind of thing. Formal religion is declining in this country, but interest in spiritual things is growing. Church denominations are shrinking, church collections are shrinking, but the retreat house that the church runs is full to the gills – at least, if they can afford to keep it open. And there are a whole load of new groupings, things like: New Age, Twelve-Step, Feminist Spirituality, Green Spirituality, a whole host of these. And I'm wondering, where's the authority in these? Or is authority a dirty word in these organisations? How do they govern themselves? I don't know. I think these groupings have been very influenced by feminist spirituality, which deliberately lacks identified leaders. If it doesn't have nominated leaders, it doesn't mesh properly with the conventional church structures, and so it's invisible, or less visible than it should be.

Now having been prompted to think a bit about authority in church circles, I then started saying to myself: 'I wonder how this carries over into science?' And so I started looking at the way science operates, the sociology of science. And here I want to stress again my experience is in physics and astronomy and what I am saying may not be true for all science, but I think it's accurate for my patch of science at least. And the first thing we need to recognise is that scientists, however objective they try to be, are doing science in a cultural context. And our cultural context is western, indeed US-dominated. Science used to be done by Arabs and Chinese, but we lost that, and our science tradition stems from the Greeks, so I think it's fair to call it western. It's largely northern hemisphere, it's largely male, it's more and more English-speaking, and it claims to place ultimate authority on the data from experiments. We are less white than we used to be, but minority people are probably still required to be honorary whites, indeed honorary white males, to play a part in science.

The other trap that I think we fall into in Britain is that we forget about the importance of creativity, subjectivity, imagination for creating the model or the hypothesis in the first place. You probably know the story of the benzene ring. Benzene is a ring-shaped molecule and it was the first ring-shaped molecule discovered and the guy who was trying to understand the structure of this molecule could not get it right, because he wasn't thinking 'ring'. One night he had a dream, about a snake swallowing his own tail and he said, when he woke up, 'I wonder if it's a circle like the snake swallowing his own tail.' And it was. Maybe that was his subconscious working on it, it may be pure coincidence, I don't know. The other critique that I wanted to make from my experience of being involved in a discovery is that when discoveries are written up afterwards, they are presented as logical, ordered, carried out by super-intelligent scientists. But actually it's a real mess – you're trying to understand what the heck is going on.

Scientists, my colleagues in particular, will claim to be highly objective. I have my doubts. I argue in vain with them that they bring a lot of cultural baggage to their science. I think if there were more females we might be more successful in this argument, but I am going to have to wait for that. But as a female I suspect that a lot of physics operates to male norms, a male ethos. It's been male-dominated for centuries, and inevitably it is the males who have named it, interpreted it, pursued it, and so on. Indeed I even suspect that what we call physics is a male interpretation of what's important in physics, and of the right way to do it, and women often come in from a different direction with different methods.

For example, when I was Dean of the Science Faculty of the University of Bath, my bailiwick included the department of computer science. The department was fairly largely male-dominated, but they were beginning to get some young women lecturers and one young women lecturer arrived while I was there and, as is the practice at Universities, was given a mentor to monitor her progress during her first year. At the end of that first year she got an abominable report from her mentor – a very brilliant computer scientist. She said, when I met her afterwards, that she had reckoned that by the end of the third year, when her probation was done, she had to have five things established. She had to have a website, a lecture course, etc., etc. and she had started doing a bit of work on all of these. Her mentor was horrified: she should have focussed on one and stopped dotting around. I suspect there were gender differences there: women are good at multi-tasking. Of course she can start and progress five different things at once, she doesn't have to do them sequentially, but he couldn't do that and therefore he thought it was wrong to do it. We're not always open to different ways of doing things and I regret, as Dean, I was a bit slow on the uptake on that one and didn't really challenge the department on their judgment. The few females that there are in the physical sciences I think provide a very important critique, even though we have to behave like honorary males in order to survive academically.

So, to authority in science. At this point, I think I need to distinguish between experimental science and observational science. Experimental science is where you can do the experiment again with the knobs set slightly differently or different concentrations or whatever. Observational science, in my definition, includes subjects like astronomy, geology, archaeology where you can't repeat the experiment. You can't say to the rocks, 'Do you mind if we redo that period of dramatic folding?' And with astronomy, you can't say, 'Can you change your temperature now please, star?' You just have to take what you've got. And I think some of the issues I am talking about come up more acutely in these observational sciences.

One piece of science, with which I was quite closely involved, concerned a pair of stars in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan. The pair of stars, or one of the pair, or something to do with the pair turned out to be a strong source of X-rays, so it goes by the name Cygnus X-1, the first X-ray source discovered in the constellation of Cygnus. It turns out that it's a pair of stars, but only one of the pair is visible. The other could be just faint – we don't see it – but that doesn't fit with the other data. The most likely interpretation is that the other one of the pair is a black hole, and this was the first example of a black hole in our galaxy. And for a long time I was reluctant to believe it, but, along with the rest of the astronomical community, I am now forced to believe it. Not because anybody proved that there was a black hole in that pair, Cygnus X-1, but because they failed to disprove it. For twenty years the community tried to prove that there was not a black hole, that the invisible companion was something else. And all these attempts at other explanations had failed and the community, me included, said, 'Oh well, I suppose it's a black hole.'. The scientific community has a role in forming consensus and actually saying, without saying it, 'Oh well, I suppose it must be a black hole.' And where you have such judgment and discernment and communities of people, you also have fashions and bandwagons and subjectivity. So I don't think science is half as clean-cut as many of us would believe.

The scientific community serves as gatekeepers. So if I come up with an utterly crazy idea like there are two black holes in Cygnus X-1, they say, 'Rubbish, Jocelyn, it's got the spectrum of a star. How can that be?'. But there's a need in the scientific community for the person who stands apart, the rebel. In the UK we had a famous character called Fred Hoyle – some of you will have heard of him – who performed this role. A very blunt Yorkshireman, who was very clever and who irritated – more than irritated: infuriated – everybody, particularly the more established ones, by promoting counter-theories, which had as much proof in them as the community's fashionable view.

This theme's been around for a while. Galileo: 'In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning a single individual.' Thomas Huxley, who I think goes a bit too far: 'Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.' That's a bit over the top. Or Einstein: 'Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.' I think that's true.

So where does authority in science lie? The quick answer, which my colleagues would give, is 'with the data'. But actually, as I have already, I hope, demonstrated, I think some of it lies with the peer community, with colleagues, with people who helped form that corporate judgment that, 'Oh well, I suppose there is a black hole in Cygnus X-1.' I would also say : authority lies with those who control access – to funds, to publications, to recognition. And this too is subject to fashion and bandwagons.

About 35 years ago I was one of the editors of the astronomy magazine that had the largest circulation in Britain, called The Observatory. And we editors – five, six of us – did the refereeing ourselves. So people would send us papers and each of us would read it and say, 'Yes, publish,' or: 'Get them to modify this bit,' or: 'Not on your life, we're not publishing that!' And we kept getting papers from a guy who was convinced there was water on Mars. We knew there wasn't water on Mars. Every astronomer in the world knew that Mars was a dry planet, so we sent his paper back. And he would send in a slightly different paper about the water on Mars and we would send his paper back. And he would try a different tack and send us another paper about the water on Mars and we sent his paper back. Today, we know there probably isn't liquid water on Mars now, but it does look as if there's been liquid flowing on that planet at some time. And we think there may well be ice reserves on the planet.

When I was Head of the Physics Department at the Open University I had an open door policy. The office door literally stood open unless there was a confidential meeting going on inside. One Monday morning a senior colleague, in a considerable state of agitation about something, came to my office door and stood in the doorway, propping himself against the door frame. He was troubled because at the weekend he had discovered he could dowse for water. He was disturbed because scientists like proof of things but also an understanding of how something might happen. He had the proof but not why and how. And there is no known mechanism in today's physics which will explain why a hazel rod or a bent coat hanger twitches when it goes over a water source. Yet my colleague was presented with that evidence. Now he is a very able physicist, he likes things black and white, he likes things nicely sewn up, and the fact that he could dowse and there's no known way that one should be able to dowse was profoundly disturbing. So he spent an hour and a half propping up my door frame while he talked, ostensibly to me, but actually at me and tried to work out what was going on. After an hour and half, he had more or less convinced himself that there must have been a slight depression in the field and his subconscious noticed this and as he walked across the depression, things twitched. Now I'm not sure that he was going to be able to hold on to that explanation. But at least it got him moved on that morning and allowed me to get on with some work. For a physicist to have really good evidence of dowsing or spoon-bending or a number of other things that we glibly label paranormal is very disturbing because it blows your world apart.

A number of us actually aren't very good at living with uncertainty, but it's actually one of things you have to do as a research scientist, and probably also, as a research theologian, and maybe just as a member of the human race. Research science leaves a trail of loose ends. You're working with incomplete pictures; things aren't neatly sewn up a lot of the time. You have to be able to live with 'I don't know' and you have to able to live with change. I can see that for some this is very difficult because they want to impose order, want a sense of security and maybe they want a sense of being in control.

One of the big things to hit astronomy in the last 10 years, still a very big mystery, is what we call dark energy. You may know that the universe is expanding, the galaxies are gradually moving further and further apart. This is left over from the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago. You would expect that expansion to gradually get slower because there is gravitational attraction, albeit weak, between these galaxies and you think they'd hold each other back. But about 10 or 15 years ago we discovered that that ain't the case – in fact the expansion is getting faster. Something is pushing the galaxies apart, it's a sort of anti-gravity and this is something that we honestly do not understand at the moment. But one of the first things we had to do was give this thing a name. We called it dark energy: it's energy because it's pushing and it's dark because we ain't a clue what it is. And we feel more in control for having given it a name!

One of my favourite quotations come from Rilke's letters to a young poet, some of you may know it:

Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart, try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live some distant day into the answers.

I think that's good advice to a scientist.

I want to finish by at least identifying some of my baggage. This may not come as a surprise to you, but I should identify it anyway. Do you remember 1888 and Pope Leo's encyclical? Six days after it there was a commencement ceremony in the United States at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which is a Quaker foundation. The president Isaac Sharpless gave the following advice to his graduates.

I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organisation, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments.

How wonderful and amazing that that speech was made within days of the Pope Leo statement. And finally since I have used a lot of quotations: 'A quotation in a speech, article or book is like a rifle in the hands of an infantryman. It speaks with authority.'

This is an edited version of the recording of the talk given by Dame Jocelyn at the SOF annual conference in Leicester. Recording and transcription by Oliver Essame.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and President of the Institute of Physics.

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