Science: shining beacon or siren on the rocks?

CTIO at sunset, (c) NOAO/AURA/NSFIt’s that time again: time for governments to pump up science as panacea to world ills, for ministers to commission national surveys to discover why young people won’t study it (and most people still don’t get excited about it) and for public-engagement experts to work out new strategies for getting us to see the light.

In Britain the government has just finished a consultation on its new Vision for Science and Society. To remedy the lack of enthusiasm the process uncovered it has started yet another public education campaign, called “Science, so what? So everything”. Its message, largely regurgitated by mainstream media word for word, is that science should be ‘for all’ and that we should stop looking at it as elitist and boring because it underlies everything that’s important.

Why does this make me sigh? I’m a scientist by training, and a science journalist by trade. I know from personal experience that scientific exploration can be stimulating, rewarding and worthwhile. In my writing I have covered some of the most awe-inspiring scientific efforts of the last two decades. I believe that the pursuit of knowledge has intrinsic value and I admire the great minds that have paved the way to all that we have learned. Yet…

There’s science, and there’s science.

Let’s start with the superficial. Science is often boring – and I know this from personal experience too (why else would I move into journalism?).

Science is often elitist: if you cannot compete in the jargon-riddled, academic paper-spewing, workaholic, presentation-churning world of research you can expect to be steadily marginalised. Scientific knowledge and discoveries are closely guarded, sometimes even when the research has been funded by the public purse. In some cases science has taken common knowledge and transformed it into technology that must be bought (think of farmers, who once knew everything there was to know about the art of making their crops grow with what they had on their land but who now depend on inscrutable combinations of chemicals and machinery from outside suppliers).

To succeed in their field, modern scientists must be incredibly specialist in their focus and obsessive in their drive; small wonder that a percentage of those attracted to it will display social tendencies associated with nerds and eccentrics.

No amount of public consultation will change all that.

And also, science is not always for the public good. Evidence of scientific research being hijacked by vested interests for profit is widespread and widely known (here’s just one recent example.) Examples of scientific programmes that have resulted in more harm than good abound. The majority of national science research funding in the richest countries of the world goes into military enterprise (remember, that translates into more efficient, state-funded death). The technological era could not have happened without science, and the by-products of this include toxic waste, mass extinction, the widespread destruction of forests and ocean ecosystems, pollution, climate change, soil erosion and human population overshoot. Far too often, the benefits of science are privatised while its costs are socialised. Science comes with caveats, and plenty of them.

I know this sounds strong. In its purest form, science as a quest for understanding seems like a pretty neutral, value-free undertaking. If only it were that simple. To understand why it isn’t, it’s useful to go briefly back to fundamentals. The scientific method offers an indisputably powerful and effective way of gaining an understanding of the world. But it comes with its own particular sort of baggage, born out of humankind’s sense of separation from the rest of the living biosphere and the universe, which has grown since the inception of agriculture and was realised most pointedly during the enlightenment, the era that gave birth to so many of our scientific revelations.

The underlying assumption, indeed requirement, of mainstream science is for a complete sense of separation and detachment between observer and observed: objectivity. While objectivity has of course given us reliable, reproducible results, and has affirmed powerful and useful models, its premise of separation has self-replicated and resulted in the tendency to understand by taking apart, by reducing systems to their components, by subtracting the emotion, the essence, the spirit and all the things dismissed by science as irrelevant (by definition, because it can’t detect them). Science is a language and a tool, a product of humans, and ultimately a method used by humans to translate the world into terms we can manage and use. Inevitably, science has become the map that directs us to the means by which we can manipulate the world according to our desires.

And in case you are tempted to maintain science’s innocence and point the finger at technology, as the appliance of science: I used to do that too. I now believe I was missing the point. The underlying psychological framework or ‘worldview’ that is necessary for science as a mode of enquiry to prevail is exactly the worldview that allows us to knowingly destroy our very means of survival. Rather than seeing science as being at a level too fundamental to be the problem, we should recognise that we are not looking deep enough. Science, wonderful though it can be, is in fact one of the symptoms.

This is not to say science should be banned. It’s more a call for self-knowledge and awareness. If we can see when and where science and its applications are most heavily laden with the values of human domination and separation, and when and where this might be used to good or ill effect, we can choose more judiciously when and how to fund it, when and how to use it, and when instead to favour other approaches to understanding and knowledge.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at that ‘Science, so what?’ campaign. On its web site the words ‘Science, so what?’ are followed first with ‘So he can be big and strong,’ next to a picture of a baby and a sentence about optimum diets for babies’ development. Hang on: don’t the mother’s breasts make the optimum diet for babies? Oh yes, but most of us stopped using those when an earlier version of science told us to give our offspring a mixture of reduced calf-food and sugar instead. OK, what else. ‘…So what? So we can be champions.’ Since when did fancy rubberised bodysuits make us better sportspeople? Surely better to do away with the props, level the playing field and put a stop to the unnecessary production and waste associated with sports-kit gimmickry? So it goes on.

It’s dull; it’s condescending; and the ads, with their annotated pictures and simplistic statements, take the beauty out of the activity they depict – rather than putting it in. That’s reductionist science for you.

The campaign pales in comparison with more insidious attempts to get young people to follow blindly the path to science, however. Take for example the recent ‘Big Bang’, a government-supported science and technology education fair aimed at young people in the UK, sponsored by many prestigious science organisations but also by Shell and BAE Systems, the country’s largest arms manufacturer. Campaign group Scientists for Global Responsibility likened BAE’s presence at the fair to “allowing Darth Vader to demonstrate his light sabre at a children’s party”; even establishment journal Nature allowed itself a little tease in its blog.

The compromised ethics and plain poor taste of public relations exercises like these appear to undermine a national vision for science and society that sounds quite good, in principle. It is: “A society that is excited about science, values its importance to our social and economic wellbeing, feels confident in its use, and supports a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce.” But in fact the vision itself is flawed, because of the definitions. If it were describing science used judiciously and openly for the public good, perhaps it would work. But most of us know that it isn’t.

Most of us know that science is annexed to the cause of industrial capitalist growth, and it’s easy to see (these days especially) that this is rarely conducive to social or even economic well-being. Most of us know that what the government sees as a ‘representative’ scientific workforce would probably not represent what we’d like to see represented nor what prospective scientists would want to represent. In a comment piece I wrote for the September 2007 issue of Science and Public Affairs (available from here, p27), I pointed out that students would be more motivated to pursue science if it were more clearly grounded in moral, ethical and environmental principles, which they recognise to be more important than economic gains.

It is patronising of our political representatives to think we haven’t spotted these issues — or that our affections can be bought with a bit of high-tech sports clothing or some advice on how to feed babies. It’s incredible that our political leaders can’t even act on the decent scientific advice they have got, if it doesn’t fit the economic model — let alone take the long-term view and put money behind forms and applications of science that correct our path, restore natural systems, and take us towards genuine wealth and health.

So how could we pursue science so that it might achieve these things? Let’s start with who benefits from the knowledge. The obvious thing would be to make sure we all do. There are various projects exploring or promoting this, Science Commons and the Convention on Knowledge being two examples.

Then there is the nature of the knowledge. Remember I said that scientific study is based on separation, objectivity and reductionism? Well, not all scientific study is. There’s a relatively recent approach to science that is attracting a small but loyal following, pioneered by the Schumacher College in Devon, UK. It’s called holistic science and you can study it in bite-sized chunks or as a full-length masters degree.

The course director, Stephan Harding, has written one of the most personally compelling and enjoyable scientific texts I’ve come across. Called Animate Earth, it tells the tale of our living planet from the point of view of someone who is overtly and explicitly part of it – and is encouraging his readers to feel increasingly part of it too, in order to gain deeper understanding from a subjective point of view. His descriptions of natural cycles, Gaia Theory and beauty bring Earth science to life in more ways than one.

As an approach, holistic science allows components of a system to stay together and produce between them “emergent properties” which could not have been predicted from reductionist methods like Newtonian physics (life on Earth possibly being such an emergent property). This way of thinking and working is producing fields of practice that also follow holistic, systems-based approaches, resulting in endeavours that appear to have few if any of the drawbacks typical of modern technologies and that take a more measured and intelligent approach to discovery and design. Those include Earth System Science, biomimicry and permaculture – all sophisticated methods with much to offer the disillusioned investor or student in terms of discovery or yield.

Of course, many of these new fields hark back or owe something to traditional or indigenous ways of knowing, some of which have endured for thousands of years. Their worth is demonstrated clearly by the genuine sustainability of the societies that rely on them. Mohawk elder Ohki Siminé Forest encapsulated an important aspect when she described at last year’s Bioneers conference her people’s philosophy of “seeking out life”, rather than “making a living”.Earth ((c) NASA)

So, this is not an anti-science article. It’s pro-science: but with the proviso that we are more aware of what science can produce and more selective about what we want from it. It is indeed time we invested properly in scientific endeavour so that it attracts the right people and full support. But to do this we need to redirect that endeavour, so that it allows a holistic view of and a sense of worth within life; so that it aims for solutions of intelligence and maturity, not greed and short-termism; so that it is geared for conflict resolution not war; for resource management not resource grabs; for appropriate technology not consumerist gadget-technology; and for knowledge and wisdom, not opportunism; that is, scientific endeavour that is geared to creating a positive, lasting future for life on the planet.


One comment

  1. I’ve just read your article and was inspired enough to send it to all the contacts in my address book I thought would understand it.

    Great work.

    Many thanks

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