Brave new worlders

Science and the Retreat from Reason
February 2, 1996

The philosophy of science," a wag once wrote, "is about as much use to a scientist as ornithology is to birds." For "philosophy" one might equally well insert "history" or "sociology" but the message from the laboratory bench is clear. Scientists have to believe in their own objectivity if they are to succeed. Yet the humanities come to science bearing a new heresy called "cultural relativity". What, after all, is this "truth" for which scientists strive? And why, in the late 20th century, is science more likely to be associated, in the popular imagination, with Hiroshima and Chernobyl than it is with the eradication of smallpox?

We scientists work in a social and political environment that seems increasingly hostile to what we do. It is not that science is failing to produce the goods: there is now the prospect through molecular biology (to use one example) to breed better crops, cure diseases and even predict in advance whether a foetus will have a genetic disease. But instead of welcoming such advances, the public's reaction is often sceptical.

"The central aim of this book," the authors write in the introduction, "is to put afresh the argument for human progress." Progress, they argue, results from human actions. And these actions are going to throw up problems at the same time as they contribute solutions. "Indeed," they go on to say, "it is only through the creative process of problem solving and identifying new problems that the dynamics of progress unfolds." I take no issue with this argument. Yet, on reading further it appears they believe that this process is one for scientists only. Society is excluded.

"All in all," they write towards the end of the book, "intervention into biology, especially human biology, is condemned today as never before - at just the point where its potential benefits are also unprecedented." They comment on the outcry in 1994 when a 59-year-old woman had a baby: "Why do [people] not I speak of the advantages, in terms of meeting human needs and aspirations, that the new [fertility] methods promise?"

Must society mutely applaud the ingenuity of the scientists responsible? Are questions about the social consequences of a teenager with a mother in her seventies not the legitimate concern of society at large? Of course they are.

Clearly there are strong antiscience trends in western society today. But does being antiscience necessarily mean being against progress? I think not. Environmental science has made enormous advances in the past 30 years. We understand now what the indiscriminate use of pesticides can do to ecosystems, for example, and this had led to a rethink of agricultural practice on a large scale. Progress must, occasionally, involve reversing out of a cul-de-sac of endeavour, rather than simply building bigger and better battering rams with which to forge ahead. Some of what the new technologies let us do was hitherto impossible but, in many cases, we can just perform old tricks much faster. Faster, perhaps than the ethical debate can keep pace. It is easy for scientists to interpret the resultant howls of anxiety as antiscience trends, particularly when the howls come gift-wrapped with quasi-mystical trimmings.

Unfortunately, the enticing prospect of a "clear and intelligible introduction to modern scientific thought" (the claim on the jacket) is largely unfulfilled because of the authors' strong views. I was not convinced by their arguments that quantum mechanics, along with chaos and complexity theory, has reinforced the view that humans must concede to nature and cannot fathom its subtleties. The development of ecology in the past 30 years along with the enormous power of the electronic media for bringing man's most excessive attempts to master nature into the living room seem equally influential, yet receive relatively little attention.

Many scientists probably share Gillott and Kumar's concern about the rise of antiscience feelings in the West. Yet the challenge is not simply, as Gillott and Kumar pretend, to "tackle the barriers to progress thrown up by society". It is to learn to differentiate between the genuine ethical concerns that some of the new technologies raise and the kneejerk reactions of a disillusioned, postindustrial generation.

Martyn Kelly is a freelance environmental consultant and science writer. He was formerly a research fellow, department of biological science, University of Durham.

Science and the Retreat from Reason

Author - John Gillott and Manjit Kumar
ISBN - 0 85036 433 7 and 451 5
Publisher - Merlin
Price - £18.95 and £10.95
Pages - 287

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