The Modern Meaning of Science
How much do we trust scientists? asks Tony Gilland
Science and technology, we are frequently told, are transforming our lives at a faster pace than ever before. And certainly the level of public interest in science seems to be at an all-time high. The number of science books published and sold, the readership of popular science journals, the in-depth coverage of science by print and broadcast journalists, and the vast array of organisations and festivals promoting discussion of and interest in science has never been greater. There are more people working as scientists in the world today than ever before and billions of pounds are invested in scientific research each year. Yet, paradoxically, at the very same time as we are witnessing an expansion of scientific activity and its discoveries, the role of science and scientific experts has never been more contested witness the raging debates over mobile phone technology, GM food and the MMR vaccine, for example. Government, industry and the scientific establishment, faced with one crisis after another, are ever more anxious about their standing in the public's eye. In response to this situation a new contract is being drawn up to govern the relationship between science and society. This contract embodies a more humble view of what science can deliver, but those in authority hope that it will help to secure science's 'licence to practise'. Unfortunately, what few have commented upon is how the negative meanings so frequently attached to science today are becoming institutionalised in our society through this process.
Let's examine the terms of the contract. The first requirement is to embrace the 'precautionary principle'. The precautionary principle demands an expansive search for evidence that no harm will result from an activity before allowing it to continue, and has already become well embedded in our society. The government's ban on the sale of beef on-the-bone (from 1997 to 1999) and the removal from 1998 onwards of white blood cells from all blood destined for transfusion (due to the hypothetical possibility of CJD being transferred from person to person in this way) in the wake of the scare about BSE and its possible link to CJD, the moratorium on the growth of GM crops, and restrictions on the use of the countryside to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, are some of the more high-profile instances where the precautionary principle has been invoked.
Speaking at a recent conference on risk, held in April at Goodenough College in London, Professor Robin Grove White, from Lancaster University, provided a clear explanation of the precautionary viewpoint through the concept of 'unknown unknowns'. Grove White, an influential figure in the moulding of the new contract between science and society, explained his frustration at trying to get scientists to acknowledge the importance of taking into account the existence of 'unknown unknowns'. He recounted his dialogue with a scientist who kept demanding to know what unknowns in particular he had in mind. The scientist just could not get the point that these unknowns were as yet unknown! Well, okay, the unforeseen can happen, but is building policy on the basis of 'unknown unknowns' the way forward? As his adversary on the panel, Professor of Sociology and author of the Culture of Fear, Frank Furedi, pointed out, this would be to privilege the unknown over all that is actually known.
Grove White's response was to rattle off the words, thalidomide, asbestos, CFCs, global warming, BSE, and genetically modified (GM) food in quick succession. This much-used technique of listing a string of high-profile examples of things that have gone wrong in the past or are currently controversial is often enough to convince people, in today's fearful climate, of the past foolishness and arrogance of science. Attaching negative meanings to science is child's play today. Take the example of GM. Absolutely nothing of significance has gone wrong with this technology, which has been developed and tested over a period of some 20 years, yet it is often treated as though it has already maimed the world and scarred our lives.
It would seem to me that the foundation of the precautionary principle has less to do with what is known and unknown, and more to do with the belief that the worst will always happen. Essentially it is based upon a rewriting of history that plays up all that has ever gone wrong and plays down all that has gone right. But while it is valuable to learn lessons from past mistakes, the key issue is whether we do so from a point of optimism or pessimism about our ability to improve the future. After all, for all the mistakes that have been made, we live longer, healthier and better lives than ever before so more must have gone right than has gone wrong.
Cynicism about science
But providing long lists of things that have gone wrong, whilst not much of an argument in itself about the benefits of the precautionary principle, does chime with the times and the public mood. Expressing cynicism about science and hostility towards arrogant scientists who are accused of meddling with nature, imposing risks on us all in pursuit of their curiosity, egos or even to line their pockets, has become an acceptable way of expressing our general frustrations against those in authority.
Witness how eagerly we accept the idea that our food is being poisoned by the suspect motivations and carelessness of industry, government and science. And what of modern medicine? It has achieved a lot. But when we read and hear about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of autism in children, many are quick to question whether those cold clinicians and medical researchers are really so sure about what they are doing. Are they listening sufficiently to the parents, have they considered all the possibilities? Even the mobile phones that we love to use might just be frying our brains! Significantly, when scientists and politicians try to reassure us of the safety of these technologies this generally increases suspicions.
For some time government, industry and the scientific establishment, alarmed by this growing scepticism towards science, have been asking, "What is to be done?"
To the rescue has come an influential group of environmentalists, consumer activists and sociologists. The central tenet of this group's argument is that the public was and is right to worry all along the modern world, dominated by science and industry, is indeed a scary place. But having campaigned through the media and lobbied government about the dangers of science, these groups and individuals are now offering to rebuild our public institutions, improve the democratic process, and thereby help restore public trust in government and science.
Their prescription is to take the philosophy of the 'unknown unknowns' a stage further and to write into the new contract between science and society a role for the 'non-expert expert'.
Democratise decision making
Who these non-expert experts are is less important than their attitude towards science. Take, for example, the influential Economic and Social Research Council Report, The Politics of GM Food. According to the authors of this report: "Many of the public, far from requiring a better understanding of science, are well informed about scientific advance and new technologies ... if anything, the public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisors in their instinctive feeling for a need to act in a precautionary way". The key argument is that whatever the scientific experts know, they alone cannot be trusted to advise on matters scientific because they do not share the instinctive concerns of the public or properly appreciate that things inevitably go wrong. Furthermore, it is argued that the public, whose instinctive concerns demonstrate a more accurate appreciation of the limits of nature and knowledge, have in the past been excluded from the decision making process and therefore feel aggrieved about the risks that are imposed upon them without consultation. The answer, then, is to democratise the decision-making processes by including other voices and forms of expertise.
To this end the Government has been busy incorporating environmental and consumer groups, as well as key individuals, into consultative groups and committees. They are keen to announce their new democratic credentials. Take, for example, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC). An eclectic group of these new experts have been mixed with a few scientists, business people and a former presenter of the TV programme 'Tomorrow's World' to form a new Commission to advise the Government on whether, and if so how, to proceed with GM technology. Launching this new body then Minister at the Cabinet Office, Mo Mowlam, told us that they are "a powerful body ... that will be your voice in government".
The scientific establishment have also taken heed, and are engaging in 'two-way dialogue' with 'stakeholder groups', 'non-government organisations', 'representatives from the media', and 'members of the public'. In March, the Royal Society hosted its first National Forum for Science to discuss with such groups and people the topic 'Do We Trust Today's Scientists'? According to the Royal Society, it designed its dialogue processes "to be fair and inclusive, maintaining an emphasis on democratic involvement throughout ... and ensuring an effective two-way system of communication with the public". The Royal Society is clearly bending over backwards not to appear arrogant or elitist, and to recognise equally the contributions of all parties. But is the price that the Royal Society paying is that it risks losing sight of the significance of its own expertise?
Take, for example, the Royal Society's latest report on the safety of GM food, published in February of this year. The primary finding of the report was the total lack of evidence that genetically modified crops cause harm to human health. However, influenced by this new ideology, the Royal Society chose to spin its report to the media in a way which gave great prominence to hypothetical concerns about GM infant formula and allergic reactions to crop dust, not because it had changed its opinion about the safety of GM, but in an attempt to improve its standing in the eyes of the public. The report generated some startling headlines: 'Fears for babies from GM milk' in the Daily Telegraph, 'British scientists turn on GM food' in the Guardian, and 'Call for more curbs and improved safety tests for eating genetically modified foods' in the Financial Times. The Royal Society's press officer responsible for the media launch of the report explained to me how "in the past the Royal Society has been incorrectly portrayed as being pro-GM" and that it was keen to correct this impression, demonstrate that it takes public concerns seriously, and to flag up potential risks.
In other words, in this instance, the Royal Society aligned itself with the environmental and consumer groups who have been spreading fear about GM technology in the hope that this might lead the media and the public to consider it in a more favourable light. But surely what the public would most benefit from, is an honest and convincing explanation about the safety of GM food in other words the benefit of the Royal Society's expertise.
Despite all that I have outlined, it should be recognised that science is still very much alive and will continue to have an important role to play in society. No one is saying that we can do without science or that it has nothing to offer. But at the heart of these debates is a battle over values and the cultural meanings that we attach to science. On the one hand there are those who celebrate the human values embodied in science a belief in human rationality, the pursuit of objectivity and truth, and a willingness to experiment and explore. On the other there are those who view this as hubris and celebrate what they regard to be a new healthy scepticism about science, taking every opportunity to interpret ambitious innovations as destructive acts of arrogance.
The latter now appears to be the prevailing view. According to this mindset, science then must become a tool that we learn to use cautiously and to contain. No longer shall it be an emblem of what marks us out as human beings our rationality, experimentation and preparedness to struggle to transform our lives. Rather, science becomes something that we learn to live with, and nature, not human endeavour, becomes our supposed source of inspiration and meaning.
This is bad for science, and will limit its development. But it is even worse for our vision of ourselves. Rather than cowering in the face of new technology and fearing the consequences of our own actions, we would do better to take this discussion out of the realm of science and embark upon a more upfront debate about how we want to live our lives and shape the future.