Science, Technology and the Philosophy of Science

We – humanity; the world – need excellent science and appropriate technology if we and our fellow creatures are to face the future with anything approaching equanimity.

But science seems horribly to have lost its way. No longer is it regarded as the world’s servant as it was in the late 1970s when Sir Kenneth Blaxter, then director of the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen, told the Royal Society:

“It seems wrong that … the science related to producing food has to be used in a competitive fashion: the essence of science is its universality, and freedom from hunger should be the birthright of all mankind”.

From: “Options for British Farming” in Agricultural Efficiency. The Royal Society, 1977.

Nowadays, such sentiments invite ridicule. We are virtually at the stage where no research can be done unless it brings short-term profit to its sponsors — and competition, which Sir Kenneth warned us against, is the rule. So now, huge problems that cry out to be investigated are neglected, while matters that are of very little practical use except to a few commercial companies and their political dependents, seem to have become the principal endeavour – an obvious example being the current,  near obsession with highly speculative biotechnologies, and in particular with GMOs.

On a broader, philosophical note, it now seems that many people even in the highest places – or perhaps especially in the highest places – don’t know what science is, and what it is not. In many circles science is seen as the royal road to omniscience – if we don’t know everything now we soon will, if only we spend more on research. By the same token, it seems to be widely if tacitly acknowledged that the high technologies to which science gives rise will bring us to a state of omnipotence. Whatever trouble we may be in (the modern myth has it) we can find a technology to get us out again – provided we spend enough on the R & D. Both these lines of thought lead to the conclusion that all we really need to do is make more money – that the making of money is indeed the sine qua non.

Unsurprisingly, against such a background, the political control of science is at best erratic. Politicians and government advisers are wont to tell us from time to time that “We must go with the science” – a marvelously vacuous slice of rhetoric not least because science, at any one time, tells us many different things simultaneously, and what we do in response depends on what aspects we choose to prioritize. But then, at other times, politicians (and their advisers) ignore science all together. In general, of course, the bulk of applied science – science that directly affects the way we live, as opposed to the kind that goes on in people’s heads – has now been handed over to big business, to be led by the “the market”, in accord with the prevailing dogma of neoliberalism.  But tax-payers continue to pay for a large part of the basic studies.

Science is one of the triumphs of humankind, and the high technologies it gives rise to could be our finest servants. But as things are, they are not serving us well. Indeed, the products and side-effects of present-day science and high tech are now among the greatest threats to our survival – a ludicrous state of affairs. Science itself has become the handmaiden of big business and big finance and is in serious danger of losing its own integrity. Yet without its integrity, it is nothing.

In short, we, humanity, need to take science in hand, just as we need to take agriculture in hand: to ask again what science actually is, and what it is not, and what its limits are; to re-define what we want science to do, and try to make sure that it does it; and indeed to rescue science itself from the present, crude dogma of the neoliberal, finance-led, allegedly free global market.

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