The perception of science by many in western societies is of an arrogant enterprise, convinced of its own certainties, one that impacts massively on our lives, but is conducted away from the public gaze: that it is a materialistic, inhumane perversion that is part of the problem rather than the solution. My counterpoint is that science is concerned with uncertainty, not certainty; its discoveries are conducive to humility, not arrogance; it needs to be recaptured as a public, not a mandarin enterprise; and that unless it is, the human species will be unable to cope with the problems that it now faces.
Scientific understanding has been a force for human humility. It has dealt four great blows to our overweening self-esteem.
Copernicus showed that our Earth was not at the centre of the universe, but a minor planet in an insignificant star system at the edge of a small galaxy.
Edinburgh's James Hutton showed that we were late on the scene, on an Earth 'without vestige of a beginning, without prospect of an end'; whilst Mark Twain satirised our pretensions with 'anybody can tell that the skim of paint on top of the pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower is what the tower was built to support.'
Darwin showed that we were the outcome of chance happenings driven by indirected processes.
And most recently, the collective international scientific effort has demonstrated that far from being caring custodians of the planet, we have changed and pillaged it to the extent that humanity has become as powerful a geological agent as the oceans, rivers and ice sheets combined, upsetting the self-organised Earth system, and with the potential to bring apocalypse down upon itself.
One of the objectives of natural science has been to provide an exact picture of reality; to discover truth. One of its greatest achievements is to show that this is impossible. Some philosophical beliefs and many religious dogmas have claimed that they have a special route to certainty that does not require observation or experiment. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no text in reality, they open the door to tragedy. As Jakob Bronowski claimed, in his powerful and moving BBC film 'The Ascent of Man,' it is the road to Auschwitz.
The development of modern science in the 17th century was based on observation and experiment. Nothing was to be accepted unless there was an empirical reason for believing that it might be true, and such beliefs (theories) were to be subjected to experimental tests. Nillius in verba (words are empty, in my very free translation) was taken as the motto of the new Royal Society, born of the Enlightenment in 1660. Experiment was the cornerstone of the new science, but it revealed two unexpected insights that we could regard as scientifically-derived ethics:
Firstly, from the classic work of Gauss (he of the 'normal distribution') that errors are an intrinsic part of experiment and that, in his words, 'errors are an inextricable part of human understanding.'
Secondly, that experiments cannot prove general truths, but they can show statements to be untrue: you can't prove but you can disprove. As Berthold Brecht wrote, 'the aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error,' and as Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, characterised the frequent agony of the experimental process, 'a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.' A beautiful theory of mine was slain several years ago. Fortunately, the ugly fact was also mine.
Although error and uncertainty are intrinsic to science, it does make progress, by experimentally disproving the erroneous and narrowing down the range of the possible. Will we ever know it all? No. The outcome of creative research is to pose at least two questions where only one grew before. It is like creating a clearing in an infinite forest. The bigger the clearing, the more trees you can see.
It is the creative, unlikely imaginative leaps that open up the most powerful insights, the biggest opportunities. As Peter Medawar, a scientific hero of mine, who received a Nobel prize for inventing immunology, wrote, 'we all have colleagues whose minds are so full of the means of refutation, that not a single original idea can enter in.' The most powerful ideas often come from nowhere, are quite unexpected, and often come from the young who do not know enough to restrain their wild ideas.
The unpredictability of scientific discovery is illustrated by a commission of the best US scientists and industrialists brought together by President Roosevelt in 1937 to advise on the most likely innovations of the succeeding 30 years. Not only did they identify many unrealised technologies, but they missed nuclear energy, lasers, computers, xerox, jet engines, radar, sonar, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, the genetic code and many more. The fallibility of scientists in anticipating the future is as strong as anyone else's, and we should certainly ban the words 'never' or 'impossible'.
Remember the words of the chairman of IBM in 1945, 'there is a world market for no more than 15 computers'; of the UK Astronomer Royal in 1956, 'space flight is hokum'; of the US Surgeon General in 1967, 'we can now close the book on infectious diseases'; and of the great and good Lord Kelvin in 1895, 'heavier than air flying machines are impossible.' Shortly after, we had laptops, Yuri Gagarin, AIDS and the Wright brothers.
So why do governments fund this creative, often anarchic, inevitably unpredictable process of science? It is because the raw materials of economic development are increasingly believed to be knowledge and those who embody it. The current unprecedented rate of creation of new scientific knowledge offers novel opportunities for new technologies and new understanding about the nature, health and welfare of individuals, society and environment, and is a major driver of social change. Governments worldwide recognise this and invest massively in science and technology, which are now in the core of the economic agenda rather than at its periphery. The problem is, can we, can society, use new knowledge wisely?
It is the release of controlled energy from nature that has driven technological innovation at an accelerating rate. It can most readily be measured by energy availability. In a burst of effort, the human body can generate about 100 watts of power. All the slaves at the command of an Egyptian pharaoh or a Ming emperor only gave them as much power as that available to a single modern bulldozer driver or tank captain. Technology has led to our using 10 times as much energy in the 20th century as in the 100 centuries since the dawn of agriculture: one of our triumphs, and possibly our greatest tragedy.
Rolling back the Enlightenment
But whilst the spirit of the Enlightenment, fact-based, sceptical, analytic, with unavoidable uncertainties that force one step back between two steps forward, has brought undoubted benefits to humankind (we are healthier, better fed with a greater life expectancy), that spirit is being undermined.
Affluent western societies, particularly in Europe, have become fearful of change, resistant to technological innovation, suspicious of scientific explanation and its inevitable uncertainties, and influenced by growing global fundamentalism, all at a time when we are beginning to recognise the potentially dire consequences of the human assault on our planetary life support system. Science is deeply implicated in these conflicting currents, whose outcome is unclear and awaits historians of the future.
A first, deep tension is about the nature of understanding. Many people and institutions find the questioning and uncertainties of rational inquiry to be less comfortable than the certainty of fundamentalist dogma and revelation. Debora McKenzie has suggested that across cultures and countries, many people are scandalised by pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles, reliance on reason rather than divine revelation, and democracy, which grants power to people rather than to God.
Few of these fundamentalist beliefs are grounded in the mainstream of the religions that they profess. Fundamentalist Christianity is as irrelevant to Christian theology as it is to science. Fundamentalist Islam finds little sanction in the Koran. Such fundamentalisms deny the very validity of much rational inquiry, with a fierce determination to overthrow the materialist method of science and reason, with the creationist campaign its spearhead.
In contrast, European, post-Reformation theology accommodated its faith to growing scientific understanding by allocating them to different domains of faith and of reason. It is not true however to assume that science is materialistic and religion concerned with the immaterial. Gravity is not material and cannot be observed. It is a postulate. But it is a postulate that can be tested, and potentially falsified. A scientist may believe in God, but as a postulate it cannot be tested. We can make predictions about the action of gravity: we cannot make predictions about the action of God.
The claim of science to describe reality has also been under attack from some social scientists with the view that all knowledge is a social construct, and therefore that no one 'narrative' of reality is of greater legitimacy than any other (is such a social scientist who flies in an aeroplane logically a hypocrite?). Whilst what we choose to study and how we study may be 'value-laden,' I adhere to Max Planck's assertion that 'There is a real world independent of our senses: the laws of nature were not invented by man, but forced upon him by the natural world,' and side with Richard Feynman's half-flippant comment that 'philosophers of science are as helpful to scientists as ornithologists are to birds.'
A second tension is about why and how we use new knowledge, and who decides? In the competitive world of globalisation, where new ideas, processes and new technologies can be communicated and implemented with unprecedented speed, the capacity of a society both to create and introduce beneficial innovation is vital to its economic success and its social and cultural vitality. A society that fails to create new intellectual capital or is unable to decide upon the trajectory of change will be a derivative society, dependent upon inspiration from elsewhere and unable to play a full role in global development. The challenge for Scotland, as for other countries, is to stimulate and use its talents, particularly those of scientists and technologists, as a powerful resource for economic development, which is historically the bedrock on which social and cultural development depend.
However that same science has come to be regarded with suspicion. It is seen as deeply implicated in technological developments that have powerful capacities to influence our lives but which are introduced without our consent and do not sit easily with public values. The public is sceptical about the motives of industry in introducing technologies, such as genetically modified crops, where the public benefit is not clear, and about the scrupulousness of the scientists in their pay. At the same time, public confidence about the use of science by government has been rocked by crises such as BSE, or long-running sagas such as the disposal of nuclear waste.
Governments have failed to engage with the public, at times affecting a lofty disdain or protesting reliance on the mandate of the ballot box, and scientists have failed to engage with the public, sometime with equally lofty protestation of superior knowledge. Both have been impediments to the creation of policies that command public support.
In a modern society that has lost the habit of deference and where as much expertise lies outwith government as within, the problem of public consent is real. It cannot readily be side-stepped by a quick fix or political sleight of hand. Policy-making in many science-driven areas has consequently become problematic. We are losing the capacity to make the decisions that society needs to make if it is both to be competitive in a competitive world and to be a leading collaborator in a collaborative world facing global challenges.
We need to recapture science as a public enterprise. To recognise that science must not be a private, laboratory cult, but a crucial part of our attempt to understand the world that we live in and our part in it, and in determining the actions we must take to improve it. Sadly, as is our tendency, we have fallen prey to the cult of the expert, who is dragged out on the 'Today' programme to explain to us what we should think, then ritually mocked in the newspapers. We need to rediscover an independent-minded 'democratic intellect,' to act as engaged citizens in a common pursuit.
The existing processes of representative democracy find it difficult to deal with such issues. The times demand a cultural change within government and society, in adopting new processes of public engagement, whereby difficult issues driven by the dynamic of scientific discovery can be dealt with in ways that command greater public consent. The engagement of 'civic society,' which we promised ourselves on the eve of devolution, is still a vital aim.
There are promising examples in the UK, such as in human fertility technologies, where a more deliberate approach and greater public engagement and awareness of the issues has led to measured public consent to processes and procedures that are perceived to bring benefits, even though considerable ethical issues are at stake.
These matters are vital, because of the grave challenges we face: how to feed a global population due to increase by 50% over the next 50 years; how to dispose of our radioactive waste; how safely to use new nanotechnologies; how to address issues of global poverty; how to maintain our energy supplies; and probably most pressing of all, how to respond to the challenge of climate change.
A third tension therefore is that between economic development and its global impact. We are not new to warnings of global crisis. Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 'Essay on Population,' warned that the growth of population would outstrip the supply of food, producing a population crash. But he failed to anticipate technological developments in farming in the 19th century, improvements in medicine that reduced death rates and the 'green revolution' in the developing world. 'The Limits of Growth' published by the Club of Rome in 1972, warned of the depletion of natural resources and quoted the 1969 warning of the Secretary General of the United Nations of perhaps '10 years left to improve the human environment, to defuse the population explosion. I very much fear that the problems I have mentioned will have reached such staggering proportions that they will be beyond our capacity to control.'
The prediction of resource depletion did not anticipate the power of technology to find alternatives. 'Only the future is certain, the past is always changing.' Science has cried 'Wolf' before, and economists have got used to the assumption that the market will find a way to substitute for exhausted resources. But climate change looks different. We might find it difficult to find a substitute for the atmosphere, and we appear to have intervened in a fundamental way with the fundamental mechanisms of the planet.
We now know that the composition of the atmosphere is an important part of the Earth's thermostat as a consequence of a well-established 'greenhouse effect' in which atmospheric gases trap solar radiation in a way that warms the atmosphere. Two weeks ago I asked my second year class to calculate the surface temperature of the planets of the solar system (which have been measured) using the intensity of solar radiation and the distance of planets from the Sun as inputs to their calculations. They got the wrong answer. I then gave them the gas composition of the planetary atmospheres, and the 100-year-old equation by Arrhenius that calculates the greenhouse effect. This time, they got the answers right. That the Earth is no different from its planetary neighbours is shown by the fact that over the last half million years changes in Earth's surface temperature have gone hand in hand with changes in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. Irrespective of George Bush's beliefs, the serious scientific debate is now over. We know that the Earth is warming, and that the principal culprits are the gases, particularly carbon dioxide, emitted by burning fossil fuels. The science of climate change is on a firmer scientific footing than that on which the search for oil is based, and there is no doubt about the efficacy of that search.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, 150 years ago, burning carbon-rich fossil fuels has progressively increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by 40%, higher than at any time in the last million years and probably the last 20 million years. It has been associated with an increase in northern hemisphere mean temperatures equivalent to more than 10% of the change from the coldest part of the last ice age, when Edinburgh was covered by more than a kilometre of ice (do I hear 'a good thing' from some of you?), to the present.
A major problem lies in the long residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of over 100 years, such that immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning would have limited short-term impact. As a consequence, delaying reduction in emissions by 20 years for example would require a rate of emission reduction three to seven times greater than if started now. All computational models of future climate agree that there is now a built-in trajectory of change with a global temperature increase equivalent to more than a third of the ice age to present shift over the next 50 years. The great fear is that continuing to increase emissions beyond the next 20 years will create an atmospheric composition not experienced since the age of the dinosaurs, possibly creating a runaway greenhouse effect, such as has occurred before in Earth history, with the potential for catastrophic impacts on human society. We have no doubt that the Earth's thermostat has been damaged. We fear that we could break it.
The political dilemma is clear. It is the 'tragedy of the commons' again. The science tells us clearly that we need to act now to hold back greenhouse gas emissions, but unless all countries act in equitable proportions, the virtuous will be economically disadvantaged while all will suffer the consequences of the sinner's inaction. For Scotland, reduction of its comparatively small emissions will have no significant global impact, but where global collaboration is vital and contribution is potentially costly there is an ethical imperative to share in global targets. As the UK government and the Scottish Executive move towards a major, and hopefully radical, shift in policies for energy, we must also hope that they will be matched by international efforts that will need to achieve a 60% reduction in the carbon content of emissions by 2050 if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are to be restrained to below twice pre-industrial levels. It could prove to be the biggest challenge that humanity has collectively faced.
But here the argument intersects with the other issues I have raised. Can rational agreements be made when there is so much disaffection with the 'ideals of rational enquiry'? As Swift commented 'you cannot reason a man out of an idea that he was never reasoned into' – and when even in Britain, public distrust of government and the need for consent will make a radical energy policy very difficult to achieve.
I expect that if the needed efforts are made, they will mark a change in the relationship between humanity and the planet it inhabits. There has long been a dichotomy, both in philosophy and popular perception, between 'nature', which we presume not to include us, and humanity and its artefacts, which are 'unnatural'. We should now discard the distinction. We must recognise that we are now powerful geological agents, and that we have been engineering the planet in the last 100 years, but engineering it in ignorance. We cannot avoid continuing to do so. The search has been for sustainability, but a more realistic view of human history would be that societies have lurched from one form of unsustainability to another.
We now need to engineer the planet with wise intent, not through ignorance. We are not as good at it as we need to be, and we will make mistakes, but we need to learn. The challenges are political, philosophical, social and scientific. I would love to be here in 100 years to see how we are doing. It will be an exciting and bumpy ride. But of course, as a scientist, I must accept that I may be quite wrong!
This article was originally presented as a paper at an event organised by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland
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