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Left, right, always wrong Unscientific thinking must be challenged wherever it comes from IF SCIENCE could vote, who would Certainly, some conservatives it vote for? Ask scientists, and a conspicuously reject those parts clear answer comes back: science of science that clash with their leans to the left. world views – notably evolution, A 2009 survey conducted by climate change and stem cell Pew Research in the US found that research. But this doesn’t mean 52 per cent of scientists identified those on the left are automatically themselves as liberal, and slightly and unimpeachably pro-science. more believed the scientific On page 24, Alex Berezow and community as a whole leaned that Hank Campbell put forward their way. The corresponding figures for conservatism? Just 9 per cent “Science and liberalism are natural allies, but only in and 2 per cent respectively. the sense of liberalism as This association between the pursuit of freedom” science and left-leaning politics can only have been reinforced by the disdain with which view that unscientific causes and vocal right-wing politicians, concerns are just as rife among particularly in the US, have progressives as conservatives. treated scientific evidence in Conservatives may sometimes be recent years. That contrasts with blinkered by their enthusiasm for the Obama administration’s what they see as moral rectitude, endorsement of it – although but progressives can be overcome words always come more readily by “back to nature” sentiments than actions (see page 10). on, say, food or the environment.
Berezow and Campbell further claim that progressives who endorse unscientific ideas get a “free pass” from the scientific community. The suspicion must be that this is because scientists themselves lean towards the left, as does the media that covers them. (Both friends and critics of New Scientist tell us we lean in that direction.) Is there any substance to that suspicion? We should go to every possible length to ensure there isn’t. Unreason of any hue is dangerous; any suggestion of bias only makes it harder to overcome. Science and liberalism are natural allies, but only in the literal sense of liberalism as the pursuit of freedom. That means freedom of thought, freedom of speech and, above all, freedom from ideology – wherever on the political spectrum it comes from. n
The keys to sleep THE surrealist artist Salvador Dali took a simple, if unorthodox, approach to mental refreshment. He would sit with a key in one hand, poised above a metal plate placed on the floor, and let sleep take him. As soon as he began to slumber in earnest, the key would slip from his fingers and clang against the plate – waking him immediately.
Dali claimed this technique provided all the rest he needed before embarking on a new work. Perhaps he was on to something. Researchers say we feel refreshed if wakened during the second of the four stages of sleep. What’s more, technology now allows us to manipulate these stages, potentially giving us a fast track to blissful rest (see page 34).
Should we embrace this technology? The idea of cutting down on “unproductive” sleep will appeal to many. But sleep disruption has complex physical and mental effects, so we will have to be very sure that we are not trading first-class sleep for third-rate wakefulness. Dali turned his dreams into art, and thence into a fortune. Most of us can’t make such lucrative use of our downtime – but that doesn’t mean it’s time wasted. n
Timbuktu’s treasure trove
in the form of ancient and fragile manuscripts on mathematics and astronomy, biology and medicine. The destruction of thousands of valuable documents at the hands of Islamist militants is a loss to world heritage (see page 5), but it will be felt most keenly in subSaharan Africa. As Europeans started colonising Africa in the
16th century, the convenient myth arose that its knowledge was mere oral history. That myth persists even today, but translating Timbuktu’s manuscripts will help dissipate it. There are perhaps 700,000 documents still in storage. Safeguarding them is vital to Africa’s past – and its future. n
FOUR hundred years ago, Timbuktu was what might today be called a centre of scientific excellence. The evidence of that has lain in the Malian city’s unique libraries for centuries,
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