"Following in Nature's Footsteps". From the 1619 book of alchemical emblems "Atalanta Fugiens". The accompanying epigraph reads "Nature, Reason, Experience and Reading must be the Guide, Staff, Spectacles and Lamp to him that is employed in Chemical Affairs."
From Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” to Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards”; Alexander’s “Mephistopholeses’ Anvil” to Thoreau’s “Walden”, my bookshelf is full of screeds lamenting the dehumanising consequences of technological innovation.
“The West’s love affair with the ideology of pure reason has made us crippling dependent on process-minded experts whose rational systems are bereft of both meaning and morality.” That’s Ralston Saul.
“Within the vast hierarchy of executive and managerial boards extending… into the scientific laboratory and research institute, the tangible source of exploitation disappears behind the façade of objective rationality.” That’s Marcuse.
Detecting a theme? It’s likely the one summed up pithily by Thoreau 165 years ago in the woods as “Lo! Men have become the tools of their tools!”
Now Marcuse has long gone out of fashion; his acolytes satirised in novels like A.S. Byatt’s “A Whistling Woman” (The Anti-University’s “anti-education, anti-progress, anti-anti”) and his philosophy described scathingly by great Polish historian Leszek Kolakowski as “semi-romantic anarchism in its most irrational form.”
Yet the popular suspicion that scientists aren’t working for “us” remains and it’s arguably been not a few centuries since science has been seen as at the forefront of bettering humanity.
How times have changed: in the 1700s members of the public across Europe would flock to “spark-filled” demonstrations: the human body had proven to be a spectacular conductor of electricity and debate raged about the new substance. Was it a material? A divine emanation?
Nobody knew, but its powers were demonstrated imaginatively before startled and fascinated crowds. “News came”, writes Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men, “of one German demonstration in which a man kissed an electrified woman.
‘Fire flashed from her lips in such abundance’ wrote an English observer, Henry Baker, ‘that they were both heartily frightened.’ Baker was sure that when the device reached England, ‘our own Country-Women will be found to have as much Fire in their Lips as well as in their Eyes as any of their Sex in Germany.’”
Electric-lipped German Fraus, possibility, progress, potential! “Natural philosophy” was all of these and more.
Fast-forward 300 years and to most youngsters with a passing interest in the myriad pressing social and environmental problems facing humanity, the sciences represent none of the above; rather, end-of-the-pipe quick fixes, lack of social conscience, bleak reductionism masquerading as progress and corporate exploitation of both intellectual and natural resources.
It’s a position unlikely to be challenged in the humanities. The average undergraduate is likely to spend a great deal of time with Foucault (Q: “What did you learn at University?” A: “Foucault” as the gag has it) who declares that his “genealogical” method is “anti-science” and who claims to be waging a struggle “against the effects of the power of discourse that is considered to be scientific”…
In this post-modern world it should come as no surprise that when it comes to thinking about science, a growing number of people of my generation would rather the experimentation simply stopped; that the corporate-sponsored technological fiddlers with their chocolate-flavoured tomatoes and tortured monkeys left their laboratories and the many challenges humanity faces were solved in a more holistic way.
Cancer? Prevention would surely be better than cure. What is the cause of the sudden rise in cancer rates after all? Surely that would be the best thing to turn attention to… Famine in Africa? Quick-fix GM magic beans ain’t the solution. More equitable trading laws might be; IMF restructuring that forces countries with little other than arable land to use it for cash crops sold on the unstable global market to pay off their former dictators’ debts might be a problem…
The scientist, meanwhile, is no longer seen as a figure of adventurous intellect, risqué curiosity and open-mindedness. Neither mystique, excitement nor a sense of possibility surround their trade and in the popular imagination electrified kisses have been replaced by electro-shocked rats — and science itself is seen as more Auschwitz than Alchemy.
New meaning to the phrase "rat race"...
This idea, whilst not born of nothing, is depressing. For amid a surge in identity politics, burgeoning growth in evangelism of every stripe and scientist-bashing a la “climate gate”, a return to looking for falsification rather than verification would be a welcome trend, as would an emphasis on method rather than findings.
All good scientists make the most strenuous efforts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory; a method that would similarly be more than welcome on many other fronts.
Given this climate, Linus Publishing’s pending release of the “New Optimists: Scientists Look to Tomorrow’s World” somehow concurrently manages to look both curiously anachronistic and significantly timely. As editor Keith Richards (no, not the Rolling Stone — a professor of linguistics at Warwick) comments astutely in the forward:
“There are shifts in mood, attitude and policy that are drawing science into new alignments that may have profound consequences for all of us, and in the public arena the sound of something different and altogether more worrying: a disturbing categorisation of science and religion as alternative belief systems.
[... For scientists], it’s not a question of whether or not they happen to believe in their findings – it’s whether they got the science right. For professional scientists, living down the wilful distortions and extravagant promises made on their behalf by the popular press is an occupational necessity, but seeing science downgraded to just another belief system is harder to swallow.
Scientists, like the rest of us, have plenty of beliefs, but the pursuit of science does not allow the luxury of indulging them at the expense of proper procedure. Science is a way of trying to understand and explain the way things work. It is driven by endless curiosity coupled with a determination not to be beguiled by easy answers.”