Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Downsizing the Status of Science

Contemporary Western society has a love-hate relationship with scientific knowledge. We pursue it and celebrate it, employing people to gain knowledge of our genetic makeup, market conditions, or the nation's mood. Often we complain that we lack sufficient knowledge to find a cure for AIDS or for minimizing the consequences of global warming. Outwardly we take knowledge very seriously, with expressions like 'knowledge is power.'

Yet, society is uncomfortable with the pursuit of knowledge, and often distrustful of those who claim to know. Suspicion of scientific authority is widespread, and people who attempt to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge find themselves accused of playing God. Such accusations are not only leveled at individuals involved in controversial areas such as genetic research or nanotechnology, but also at those who attempt to gain a better understanding of human health in general. Social scientists who seek knowledge with a capital K are disparaged for their attachment to "meta-narratives" with the same intensity that is directed at genetic research. It's been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Today, society is confronted with a strong undercurrent of opinion that too much knowledge threatens human survival.

The coexistence of an insatiable appetite for more knowledge and an intense suspicion of its further development is a paradox of Western culture today. The constant demand for scientific evidence exists alongside apprehensions about what the scientist is doing in the laboratory. Consequently, the massive investment in education, universities, and private research has not led to the flourishing of a public scientific, cultural, or intellectual discourse. The younger generations appear to be turned off by mathematics and science; it is not intellectual curiosity but hostility and suspicion that animates the debates on these subjects. The decline of interest in science is particularly striking in secondary education. Earlier this month, Colin Pillinger, a professor who led the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, warned that Britain would run out of world-leading scientists unless the disinterest in scientific education is reversed. While this statement may contain some exaggeration, the statistics indicate that the number of young people in Britain who choose to study science continues to decline.

The public's unease with the development of knowledge does not, however, mean that it has ceased to be curious about how the world works. The public has an enormous appetite for popular science books. Television programs devoted to historical and scientific themes can secure a substantial audience of curious individuals. Many people really want to learn about how the universe works, but in a world where the pursuit of knowledge lacks powerful cultural affirmation, people's relation to the universe acquires some passivity. To make matters worse, scientists, like their colleagues in the social sciences and humanities, tend to get defensive when confronted with the anti-intellectual temper of our times.

Often, the claim that scientific knowledge is no big deal is not vigorously contested. In previous times the scientific community went on the offensive in dismissing flat-earth theories as irrational anti-intellectual prejudice. Today, the term 'irrational' is used with great hesitation. Disagreements over status of scientific evidence in relation to debates over risks are often represented as a clash of rival rationalities. Ignorance and prejudice are frequently flattered and portrayed as a different rationality. Lay people seem to possess a rival rationality to that of scientists, and no one is simply right or wrong. Such confusion about the status of scientific authority leads to a situation where potentially important public debates are sidetracked into narrow discussions about regulating or restraining a new innovation. The current discussion on nanotechnology indicates that the intellectual argument in favor of experimentation appears to be overwhelmed by the narrative of science fiction.

The lack of cultural affirmation for the promotion of science has little to do with science as such. Among young people, the reaction against science and experimentation has not led to the establishment of alternative outlets for the development of intellectual curiosity. Previously, when young people became estranged from science, they turned to the humanities and liberal arts. Today's generation of students has adopted a distinctly pragmatic approach and is turned off by history, social theory, and philosophy as it is by science. The status of science is not merely at stake but also that of intellectual life in general. Ideas such as 'knowledge for its own sake' or the passionate pursuit of scholarship increasingly risk labels such as irrelevant and elitist. Einstein's conviction that "the search for the truth" is "more precious than its possession" makes little sense in an age of rival rationalities.

Of course, a lack of interest in the search for the truth does not mean that science does not have an important role in society. On pragmatic grounds, science is acknowledged as useful and necessary. But when science is disassociated from the search for truth, it ceases to have any intrinsic meaning and will lack intellectual appeal. It can also have a disorienting impact on the scientific community. Before worrying about how to sell science to the public, scientists need to be clear about the meaning of their work.

First published in the Scientist, 8 November 2004