What will be the message of British Science Week?

British Science Week is celebrating science – which indeed we ought to do. But, says Colin Tudge, we must discuss the caveats too.


British Science week: 1

British Science Week has started – March 10-19 – and in principle at least it should be a very good thing. People need to be more scientifically aware for cultural and indeed spiritual reasons as well as practical and political – for science has a huge influence on all our lives and, in a democracy, we ought to have more sense of what’s going on. It’s a great pity too to go the grave without having properly perceived the wonders that science continues to reveal. Besides, under our present government, so keen to cut down on public spending, proper science (as opposed to the technology of super-yachts and ersatz meat and other fashionable money-spinners) needs all the help it can get. 

But I do hope the Science Week will leave time to be reflective. For science is indeed wondrous because life and the universe are wondrous but all ideas no matter how wonderful can be corrupted, as all the great religions show us all too clearly. And science these past few centuries, and particularly now in this ultra-materialist, ultra-competitive, neoliberal age has been and is more corrupted than ever. Conventional education tends, very understandably, to focus on what science has told us about the material universe and how it works, and on the practical “high” (science-based) technologies that are emerging from it. But it does not always or usually stop to ask what science really is, and what it is not, and what it can tell us and what is cannot, or to talk about the downsides – the cultural, spiritual, and social disasters that may ensue when science is misapplied; in particular, when scientists and/or policy-makers are too gung-ho and rush in where angels would fear to tread. For example: 

Scientists have often claimed far more for science than science is capable of. 

I blame primarily the logical positivists. They surfaced in Vienna at about the time of World War I and dominated thinking for some decades and although their philosophy had more or less run its course and was officially more or less dead by the 1970s, the underlying mindset is still with us, like the microwave radiation from the Big Bang that still fills the skies. Richard Dawkins illustrates the point admirably, although, because he really is clever and he writes so well, he is only the most famous of many.  For the logical positivists in their commendable quest to find unequivocal truth declared that no idea should be taken seriously unless it could be “verified”, which in effect meant “proved”, and the only ideas that can be verified in respectable ways (through repeatable observations and experiment and mathematical analysis) were those of science — so only science should be taken seriously. Metaphysics – which deals in big ideas that cannot be verified by the methods of science, such as whether God exists and if so what He, She, or It actually does — went straight out of the window, taking religion with it. 

This line of thinking has two huge implications. First, since science provides the only ideas that are worth taking seriously – and indeed provides ideas that can be shown beyond doubt to be true, and since science deals most happily with the material universe, which can be reliably observed and measured, it seems to follow (doesn’t it?) that the material universe is all there is. Actually of course that doesn’t follow at all but those who incline towards logical positivism do, in fact, tend to be materialists. 

Secondly, since science at least in principle can describe the material universe perfectly, and since the material universe is all there is, it seems at least to some influential intellectuals that if we do enough science we will understand life and the universe exhaustively. Ie, science is the royal route to omniscience. This hubris (for such it is) is exacerbated by the belief that has been and is manifest in various scientific disciplines at various times – that we are well on the way to omniscience already; that we are virtual gods (though more clear-thinking and less fickle than the God of the Bible apparently is, or was) and can manipulate life and the universe at will and with impunity. We are the puppet-masters and the World is our puppet. Or so some scientists and governments like ours and a great many corporate executives apparently believe. They certainly act as if they do. 

The all-too confident assertions of the logical positivists began to be undermined almost as soon as they were formulated – by philosophers, mathematicians, and by scientists. In particular Kurt Godel from the 1920s onwards showed that maths isn’t quite the pure and pristine path to truth and certainty that was widely imagined – for in reality, all complex mathematical statements (all that are not tautologies) included a subjective element. Then Karl Popper showed that no explanation of the natural world can truly be verified. It was and is possible only to show with certainty when an idea is false. Thus an idea belongs in the canon of science (or not) not because it can be shown to be true but because it has survived the best attempts to show that it is untrue. In short: science deals not in unequivocal truths but in hypotheses – which in the end are “conjectures” – that are “falsifiable” (although some ideas that theoretically are falsifiable are not falsifiable in practice because the critical experiments cannot be done). Be that as it may, scientists in the end are story-tellers, like everybody else; and what we call “truth” at any one time is a story – a narrative — that we happen to find convincing. 

Overall, as the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn observed in the 1960s, humanity as a whole and scientists in particular lurch from grand narrative to grand narrative in a succession of what he called “paradigm shifts” and what we call truth at any one time is the narrative that happens to prevail. I am not cynical about this. I do think there is something called “truth” out there. But we can never arrive at it. At best we approach truth asymptotically – getting closer and closer (with luck) but never quite getting there; and although the gap grows smaller it is always absolute. In the end life and the universe are beyond our ken and the best we can do is interpret such clues as may come our way. In the end, life and the universe are, and always will be, mysterious. Many scientists (those of logical positivist inclination) cannot accept this. But the very best of them can and do. As Albert Einstein no less observed in Living Philosophies (1931):

 “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness” 

It would be good in British Science Week to bring such meditations to the fore. 

The over-confidence of gung-ho scientists has often had disastrous consequences

The most conspicuous examples of over-confidence are so well known they have become clichés – but are no less salutary for all that. So it was that when radioactivity was first discovered at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries it was presented to the unsuspecting populace – by some bona fide scientists as well as by quacks – as a kind of elixir, though it soon led instead to disintegration of the flesh and cancers and congenital deformities in the yet unborn. When nuclear power first came on line it was promised to be “too cheap to monitor” – but the problem of what to do with nuclear waste and the expense and potential danger of it will be with our descendants for thousands of years to come (until the lively isotopes finally decay which in truth they never “finally” do). Wonder drugs have often had hideous and unforeseen side-effects, of which the most notorious was the thalidomide tragedy of the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the disasters might have been foreseen with more rigorous testing. But others were and are literally unforeseeable. Nature is as nature is and cannot be second-guessed – not without omniscience, which is forever beyond our reach. In our dealings with the real world we just have to suck-‘em and see. The present zeal for genetic engineering and gene editing should be ringing far more alarm bells in high places than it apparently is (as discussed in the next blog).  

The ill-effects of misdirected science and high-tech are social, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual as well as physical. 

Vandana Shiva (who is herself a nuclear physicist) has done at least as anybody to show that the Green Revolution – based not on DNA transfer (which is what is usually meant by genetic engineering) but on chromosome manipulation – has done and is doing far more harm than good in her native India. The new varieties are too expensive for the native farmers and are generally ill-adapted to the local ecology and have led to mass unemployment, poverty, and an epidemic of suicides.  The same tale could be told the world over. It is crass in the extreme simply to assume that high-tech modernity must mean progress and that such “progress” must be good, and that traditional methods, especially the tried and tested methods of agriculture, are necessarily inferior. Often the indigenous methods do a far better job in the prevailing conditions, or could if they were not derided and obstructed but instead – dare we suggest? – were supported.  

Science can be and is being horribly corrupted by big money and in particular by the mindset of neoliberalism

The overall plight of science and the world in general is made worse because governments like Britain’s are keen to reduce “public spending” of all kinds. As as Professor Tim Lang commented, Britain’s food policy insofar as there is such a thing is to “Leave it to the corporates”. 

So of course science is wonderful, and of course many of the high (science-based) technologies that emerge from it are life-saving and life-enhancing and could make ever-greater contributions to human and the world’s wellbeing, and indeed are essential if we are to maintain huge populations of humanity in a tolerable state (which of course, right now, we do not). But high-tech will not be deployed for the general good unless we identify the real problems of the world (ecological, economic, moral, social) and direct our best efforts at them. What we generally do now – put our ingenuity and resources behind power-groups that seek to maximize their own wealth (in the vain hope of “trickle-down”) is not what’s needed. 

A couple of articles written some time ago illustrate some of the main points. The one on pharmacological impoverishment and cryptonutrients, here filed under “Food Culture”, a subset of “Action”, strikes a positive note. It describes ideas that could help to bring about a paradigm shift in nutritional theory which could, if taken seriously, greatly improve the human diet and help to nudge agriculture in more fruitful directions. 

The one on gene editing, here filed under “Science”, a subset of “Mindset”, is more negative in tone. It was prompted by a popular article in 2021 in the Radio Times (circulation 431,080) by Sir Paul Nurse, a former President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winner, which made far more claims for the emerging science and technologies of genetic manipulation than can be justified, while pouring derision on all who urge caution. This I suggest is over-confidence not to say arrogance of a logical-positivist kind writ large which at least century of bad experiences tells us is not a good idea at all. 

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