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.
published in the Scientist, 8 November 2004