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The debate between scientists and their growing band of critics is big news today. John Gibson and Manjit Singh see it as a sign of our pessimistic and irrational times

The scapegoating of science

'Like some expansionist power, science has swollen its claims and its frontiers until the petty kingdom of the self has lost all will to resist', argues ex-science minister George Walden (Guardian, 13 June 1992). According to Walden, science and its values have come to dominate society, with disastrous results for our spiritual well-being. He is one among a growing band of critics of modern science who have received media prominence this year.

Others who stand out are former Sunday Times columnist Bryan Appleyard, in his book Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man; the philosopher Mary Midgley, in her book Science as Salvation; the makers of TV series such as Pandora's Box and The Real Thing; and assorted clerics and Greens. Some share Walden's concerns about spiritual malaise, others worry about environmental decay. All think modern science should take the rap.

Some scientists found it hard to take their critics seriously. Biologists Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins responded in knockabout style on God, Galileo, Darwin, and the ignorance of humanities graduates who influence public life in Britain. Others were more worried. They were used to being attacked by Greens and postmodernists, but not by conservative thinkers. As the leading science magazine, Nature, commented on Appleyard's book and the appreciative review of it by Walden: 'A new version of the old assertion that science affronts human dignity...may herald an assault on basic science and its sources of support.'(30 April)

Minority rule

Most commentators have taken the argument about science too much at face value, as a debate from which one side should emerge victorious. Yet at the heart of the debate is a paradox. Both sides see themselves as a protesting minority dominated by the other. The critics see the influence of science as all pervasive, yet many scientists feel under siege, complaining that it is they who are underfunded, misunderstood, and unpopular.

So what is going on? The key to resolving the confusions is to recognise that much of the debate isn't about science at all. The contemporary debate about science and values can only be understood in the economic and political context in which it occurs. This applies in particular to the contribution of conservative thinkers. With their worldview thrown into some confusion by the end of the Cold War and the arrival of economic slump, they are trying to deal with the incoherence of their ideology: seeking scapegoats for their own crisis of faith, and justifications for their system's failure to deliver the goods. Some conservatives are turning on science, or 'scientism' as they call it.

What are the arguments? Bryan Appleyard says that science is determining human values. This is a disaster, he believes, because scientific truths change all the time, so undermining the stability of human values. For him, this is the cause of the crisis of values today. The rot must be stopped: 'We must resist and the time to do so is now.' (Understanding the Present, pxii). Pandora's Box pursued a similar theme. The series of six TV programmes argued that, during the Cold War years, the attempt to use science to solve social problems - such as the development of civil nuclear power, or DDT - led to the takeover of society by scientists and technocrats with no sense of moral values. The programme-makers' hope was that in the post-Cold War world steps could be taken to put morality back into scientific decision-making.

Alien and Robocop

Contrary to what these critics say, however, society today is not dominated by science. Indeed it is arguable that contemporary culture is more anti-scientific than at any time since the Enlightenment. Science as technique continues to advance, but popular enthusiasm for a vision of progress based on science has entirely disappeared. What's more, popular opinion is suspicious, even hostile, to the idea of science as a liberator. Just think of the image of science and the future in the Alien or Robocop films.

Most scientists are aware of their declining influence. The Institute of Physics has launched a campaign to attract young people back to the subject. A journal - Public Understanding of Science - was also launched this year to try to understand and combat what it saw as the 'anti-science phenomenon'. Denis Noble, professor of physiology at Oxford university, seemed spot on when he observed that 'Britain, far from having a culture betrayed by its worship of machines, has a culture dominated by those who fear or despise them' (Independent, 24 December 1991).

Some scientists have responded aggressively to the critics, but others have been quite defensive, feeling that the tide is running against them. In response to Appleyard, Nature did not offer a grand vision of science riding out to capture the secrets of nature. It quoted St Augustine to the effect that the meaning of life lay in rearing the next human generation.

'The mind of God'

This is not just a British phenomenon. Science, the American equivalent of Nature, takes a pessimistic position about the future. One of its editors, Leon Lederman, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argues that 'today, science in America is in a mood of uncertainty and discouragement' (Science, 22 May 1992).

The critics of science have been particularly fired up by cosmologists claiming to dispense with God. A large part of the critics' thesis that science dominates contemporary culture is based on the remarkable success of Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, (more than half a million hardback copies sold in Britain alone) in which Hawking mischievously talks about science letting us know 'the mind of God'. George Smoot, leader of the team which recently discovered the 'ripples' in the early universe, has declared that 'science is replacing the role of religion as an authority' (Science, 3 July 1992).

It is certainly the case that science has replaced the old religions as an authority in the Western world. This may upset you if you're a religious fundamentalist. But what kind of science is it? The way in which science is popularised today is more akin to religion than to scientific enlightenment. The point about the most popular of 'pop-science' books is that they are pantheistic tracts. They use 'science' to 'prove' some religious or mystical point of view.

Onward Crypto-Theists

Paul Davies embodies the trend. Davies is a theoretical physicist who recently left Britain, in part because of what he called 'a deep-seated antipathy towards scientists, especially academics, among the general population' (Guardian, 1 July 1992). But he is also the author of best-selling popular science books with titles like God and the New Physics, The Cosmic Blueprint, and his recent The Mind of God.

In a review of The Mind of God, Don Cupitt, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, made the astute point that 'it seems that not only the physicists themselves, but also the general public, are gratified by the idea that theoretical physics is a branch of theology'. (Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 March 1992). Far from feeling threatened by such scientists, Cupitt welcomed them as foot soldiers in the (religious) cause. His review was entitled 'Onward Crypto-Theists'. Scientific optimism is distinctly out of fashion. Scientific mysticism is in.

The growth of popular mysticism is a symptom of a society that is exhausted, at every level: economically, politically, and ideologically. It is also symptomatic of the collapse of secular alternatives to the status quo.

This stagnation, along with the usual commercial interests, has undermined the ability of science to make the difference to people's lives that it always seems to be promising. Take the example of the civil nuclear power programme in Britain, which had the added disadvantage of being the neglected offshoot of military interests. When she opened the Calder Hall power station in 1956, the Queen declared: 'Atomic scientists, by a series of brilliant discoveries, have brought us to the threshold of a new age.' We were promised free electricity. Instead we still have old people freezing to death in the winter, as well as hopelessly inefficient nuclear power stations dotted along the coast of Britain.

Chasing shadows

The failure of science to live up to its promise is the fault of capitalist society. However, this failure has lead to a general cynicism about science and scientists. The destructive use of science by the elites of modern society has turned such cynicism into outright hostility in some quarters.

Contrary to what critics like Appleyard say, religious or mystical ideas are gaining more influence today, while scientific optimism is in retreat. This reflects the pessimistic and irrational times in which we are living. It suggests that Appleyard and the other critics are chasing shadows. So what are they reacting to?

They are reacting to a crisis of their own value system. On the religious front, the growth in mystical ideas is at the expense of the traditional high religions. This is why Appleyard and company are so upset - the Church of England is suffering from falling rolls, while Taoism, Buddhism, and a myriad of New Age faiths are doing nicely. This is how Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, sees it: 'In many ways our time is reminiscent of late antiquity, with a decline in the official cults and the emergence of hundreds of mystery religions offering a more personal and intense experience of death and rebirth' (Guardian, 20 April 1992).

Conservative crisis

Harries' observation about the crisis of the high religions is illustrative of the wider crisis of conservative doctrine in today's conditions of slump and social fragmentation. Conservatives feel particularly disoriented because they expected to be on a roll after the end of Stalinism. Instead, the demise of their Eastern adversary has robbed them of a coherent focus, and a scapegoat. Now they are on the look out for an alternative.

Science is not the best of scapegoats since modern society needs science as technique. So 'scientism' is attacked - by which they mean the idea that moral and social values can be deduced from science. 'Scientism' is a new version of the old 'slippery slope' argument. For example, if it is scientifically possible to produce a genetic super-race, 'scientism' supposedly decrees that we must produce one. According to the Appleyard school of thought, this is the attitude of modern science. So if we support genetic engineering, its next stop Dr Mengele. This reading of the situation is quite fantastic. Scientists today are excessively defensive about their goals and set themselves very low horizons.

Faith against reason

This doesn't matter to the conservatives, however. They need to explain away the crisis of their values and society. From attacking 'scientism', the critics move on to defending faith against reason. Why? Because it is easier to defend the inequities of modern society on the basis of faith than it is on the basis of reason. What we see, however, is an assertion of the need for faith more than faith itself. Defending Appleyard in a debate at the Institute of Education, Fay Weldon displayed the sneering elitism inherent in such a view: 'Homeless people need faith', she said. Adding, 'most people are not very bright'.

Alongside their attempt at scapegoating, the critics of science are also trying to rationalise the fact that capitalism can offer only meagre rewards for most of us today. The problem with scientific optimism, they say, is that it raises expectations above what can be achieved. They ask for human modesty when looking at the workings of nature; 'awe' and 'humility' as Midgley puts it. This perspective denigrates the scientific optimism of the Enlightenment; 'puritan arrogance', says Midgley. Once again, the message is apologetic: don't expect too much. If science fails to live up to its promises, don't blame the way society is organised, blame the scientists for making the promises in the first place.

'Deaf to his music'

This attack on Enlightenment optimism and reason is at the heart of the 'anti-science' phenomenon. It unites the apologists like Appleyard and Midgley with Green and postmodernist critics of science. Midgley reserves most of her bile for the existentialist, Nobel prize-winning biologist, Jacques Monod, who upheld a few basic aspects of the Enlightenment tradition. Monod argued that nature has no plan, no design. Man, he wrote, 'must realise that, like a gipsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes' (quoted in Science as Salvation, p46).

In other words, forget about 'awe' and 'humility'. This is too much for Midgley: 'People like Monod, however, want us to get rid of all reverence, all belief in something greater than ourselves.' (p73) For his sins Monod has been attacked by Midgley, the chaos theorist Ilya Prigogine, the Green mystic Rupert Sheldrake, and the free marketeer/defender of 'tradition' Friedrich von Hayek. They make strange bedfellows, but they know what they don't like: the progressive optimism associated with the Enlightenment.

New Dark Age

Under the guise of humanism and concern for our spiritual well-being, the critics of science are taking part in the promotion of a new Dark Age mentality. Recovering an optimistic view of science requires changing the political culture on a broad front. But as a first step, let us recognise that we should indeed 'get rid of all reverence, all belief in something greater than ourselves'.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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