There has been a promising change in the public face of science which has occurred in many media since the 1970s and 80s. I trace in outline some recent trends in perceptions of science by the public, the media and by scientists themselves. Of course, science is in exponential growth and a very considerable outreach and development has taken place in many of the sciences in the past few decades, especially due to the ubiquity of virtually unlimited computing power and its related technologies.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing attitude of many intellectuals in the official media often showed an almost unquestioning belief in the efficacy of science with very little critical reflection about major underlying issues. The sciences and those referred to collectively as 'scientists' were often regarded too simply as the final court of appeal on virtually all the most important questions facing humanity. The near-deification of the sciences, at least in Europe and the US during the second half of the 20th century, made it the chief measure of human progress in many of the world's most influential minds. This attitude was encouraged by the nature of claims made by some very prominent figures, especially in the physical sciences, claims which developments have sometimes confounded, sometimes made redundant. Together with powerful commercial interests and governments in highly industrialised states, a rather dangerously overstated view of the capabilities of the sciences to solve most vital human problems was promoted. The need to reexamine the limitations of science in the understanding of ourselves and the cosmos seemed long overdue.
Certain great challenges to the scientific
community have shown up the relative uncertainty
of scientific applications in dealing with major issues.
One such was the debate over the safety of nuclear power, in which a hard core
of scientists gave excessive assurances, only to be confronted by the disasters
of Three Mile Island and, above all, Chernobyl. A second challenge was to the scientific community's unfortunate judgements and misrepresentation of
such an embracing and admittedly complex issue as the decisive causes of global warming. The original huge consensus among scientists that the over-production of carbon-dioxide and other industrial waste gases were the determining cause of an oncoming global warming catastrophe became highly controversial when by the discovery of major inaccuracies in their important data (such as the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers). This made the general
public aware of the difficulties of scientific prediction on global and other
matters which cannot be studied under laboratory conditions. Though
opponents of the hypothesis of global warming caused by human activity were
often outright antiscientific or in blatant denial - not least religiously inspired
- the intricacies of this major issue and the struggle of scientists to handle
it became widely debated. This appears to have stimulated a considerably
greater public awareness of - and healthy moderate skepticism about - the practical
limits and theoretical uncertainties of much scientific research. Also, and
somewhat paradoxically, the global warming controversy helped to publicize
the ever-increasing expansion of research efforts - and the consequent increasing
successes - of many scientific endeavours. The attack mounted on scientific
theory of evolution in the form of religious creationism also came to the fore
in a well-known U.S. court case in the USA against teaching 'creationism' in schools,
with the result that the attack was defeated both scientifically and legally
in a most decisive manner.
The overall achievements of science are immense, both from the viewpoint of the vastly increased knowledge bringing answers to questions that have always mystified humankind and from the unlimited practical improvements to human life. Yet this should not occlude pointing out and investigating remaining weaknesses - the often unproclaimed 'gaps' in its data and understanding of where the limitations to its explanation lie. Further, the theoretical avenues it explores, the practical and directions it takes- at the expense of other potential aims - are a matter for increased scrutiny, even though this is often strongly influenced by political forces. In the later 2oth century its power, virtual certainties and superiority over other kinds of understanding were often made without requisite reservation of judgement, especially through the popular media, though this tendency has since fortunately been on the decline. Many shortsighted and truncated dogmas were long upheld by the inertia of 'average' scientific opinion, as the history of scientific breakthroughs and wider 'revolutions' richly illustrates. Some such linger on. The social inertia of out-dated or truncated theory of science and attitudes are doubtless operative to some extent in all countries, especially those with backward and traditional educational systems or unreformed academic universities.
Science and materialism: A.N. Whitehead observed acutely, "A clash of doctrines is not a disaster,
it is an opportunity". Any well-meaning critique of science takes that
opportunity in questioning certain worrying aspects of parts of the scientific culture, while not denying the many unfolding achievements and
subsequent benefits for the human race of science.
To show what science yet lacks in theory and practice is a necessary as a counterweight
to certain inflated notions about its overall neutrality
among some of its promulgators, especially in the 'soft-data sciences'. Back in 1925, Whitehead famously wrote: "There persists [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate
fact of an irreducible 'brute matter', or material, spread through space in a
flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless.
It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external
relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption
that I call 'scientific materialism."1 Though much has changed in regard to this limitation, it is still a theme to be kept in mind since the philosophical assumptions of science conflict with the religions and hence with a large majority of the global population.
Positivism and materialistically-oriented empiricism were no doubt a necessary reaction to the discredited metaphysical systems that had originated mostly from theological thought, religious assumptions and speculations and had an insidious influence on prudent and pragmatic thought. The former success of scientific objectivists in steam-rolling
intellectual debate with the belief in the absolute
neutrality of 'objective theory' and confidence in scientific expertise declined after Wittgenstein broke ranks (if he had ever enlisted). Yet a legacy of attitude from positivism and objectivism still crops up here and there. Logical empiricism and variants of utilitarianism became the pragmatic fall-back position and more liberal methodological norm. Having successfully and rightly rejected metaphysics from serious debate, there followed a phase in which many would exclude any kind of extra-scientific or meta-scientific
theories as unfruitful and misguided. Radical dissent
to the hegemony of hard core scientific thinking in a range of issues became little appreciated. This naturally affected most kinds of religion or
'spirituality', which - though these are still be
largely controversial, divided and divisive, and most often revanchist - do
still represent a committed world majority which must be
reckoned with and engaged in open debate. Philosophy had long fallen from
budgetary grace and form any effective defining role other than as 'a handmaiden to science' in the world of knowledge and of society, possibly because
it has not been sufficiently oriented towards the creative correction of predominant
illusions. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault wrote: "the themes
of philosophy have come to agree with these delimiting and excluding games,
have perhaps even reinforced them."2 Academic philosophy is affected by intellectual and social fashions, which is never helpful, and it has largely had to fall back on the more passive role of a cultural and historical educational institution.
In the human and social sciences, the very frequent misapplication of natural scientific methods to its problems was often alienating and destructive of persons and culture, and this lives on in various respects, but not in the more advanced research communities. From early on, the social sciences of psychology, sociology and the like were infected with the comfortable but fateful positivist illusion (originating with Auguste Comte) that the development of society could be controlled and steered technically, much as if it were an objectifiable natural process such as the physical science study. Meanwhile, the political and academic under valuation of genuinely human studies, together with the consequent serious under funding of human researches relative to natural science budgeting, was out of gear with demonstrable needs and failures in society. One still gives huge priority to technological development and far less to the growth and of understanding the role of the individual and social transformation towards a better world.
Study of some cardinal weaknesses, both in the natural and social sciences or their uses, may help stimulate towards scientific self-reflection and more truly human studies using inclusive ecological and holistic methods of research. If trends to runaway competition, all-pervasive economism and unforeseen, widely unwanted or destructive changes are to be countered effectively, a keen awareness of human needs and concerns must be developed and sustained to counter any blind technification of life. Though there are some noticeable changes underway in public awareness of these problems, the decline in the quality and quantity of teaching in the humanities and value-oriented studies from school to university level remains a big concern. This technification of life is, of course, especially seen in the phenomenal development of interactive technologies in place of traditional forms of social activity and contact.
The pressure of national and public interests: The ascendancy of the natural scientific community in controlling much educated
opinion, such as through education and the media, is surely preferable to the alternatives of obscurantism found in many other areas of human culture. Yet through its predominance as an industrial and economical growth factor - with the consequent lobbying of its interests - it also can contribute to deleterious effects. Through it ambitions of expansion, applied sciences have long supported the dangerous but almost universal doctrine of economic growth without effective limits. Since the recognition of the pending crises of climate change, increasing exhaustion of natural resources, pollution, the breakdown and elimination of eco systems and apparently unstoppable world population growth, scientists have increasingly turned their efforts in the direction of counteractive science and technologies, the so-called 'green revolution'. Unfortunately the pressure on governments to maintain and also improve achieved living standards does not encourage critical developments in social, economic and political sciences to concentrate on the revolution in thinking necessary if the world-wide conflicts that an eventual spreading breakdown of the world social order may be averted.
The many influences of the sciences on society - both of the range of physical sciences and all the social sciences - are only studied on a minimal scale as yet, and then without the depth and breadth or vision that is desirable if this crucial aspect and effect of science is to be understood. Both observation and reason insist that many uses of scientific knowledge are unplanned to say the least, but are also unseen and more unfortunate in many more areas of life than many supporters of scientific progress realize. This is partly due to the fund-consuming theoretical physical sciences and applied technological science whose vast budgets and research policies have momentous consequences for the world. Yet they are relatively free of all but peripheral democratic controls and they proceed to further the various interests they represent largely unexamined behind closed doors, both factual and figurative, doors upon which even the media have seldom brought themselves to knock. Since human cloning and associated genetic bio-technologies became a real possibility, however, public interest causes a resurgence in the scientific ethical debate on medicine, genetic manipulation and eugenics.
The disproportionately large investments from governments, major corporations and multinationals, in most cases with profit still as their overriding consideration, has also been driven by the military and weapons industries. This has only contributed to an intellectual-ethical malaise. Critics point out how the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry also has too much influence over what is researched (or not) in medicine and the 'health industry' - and promoted and prescribed. However, since global warming and all its possible consequences has finally placed itself firmly on the world agenda, there is undoubtedly a shift in values towards 'green thinking' taking place in many large concerns, due to the realization that profit margins cannot survive without major adjustments and a change of course in many technologies. Nonetheless, those scientific projects which can advance technology or provide hard data of kinds useful to planners and policy makers still hold the confidence of those who rules the corridors of power. Investments fall off greatly in sciences that contain notable critical, reformative and humanistic elements.
Setbacks to human knowledge occur and have had many causes: major wars, totalitarian
regimes, colonial and missionary destruction and suppression, famines, plagues
and various natural disasters. War being 'the mother of invention', advances
in science have often been greater as a result of such disturbances than the
relatively minor and temporary setbacks. Perhaps the major hindrances to any
system of knowledge (other than practical limits) come about when the assumptions
on which it is based are successfully challenged and cause a Kuhnian paradigm shift. This has been seen regularly since Copernicus,in Einstein's relativity, in math's and in logic where axioms were challenged and substituted for
more inclusive concepts and so forth. In the C21 it seems likely that the methodological, philosophical
and social assumptions of the last century with its interdisciplinary boundaries transformed through the expansion of ecologically-initiated crossover thinking and the study of
complexity (holarchy). The science community, becoming globalised on a far greater scale than ever through the computing revolution, will presumably overstep those interdisciplinary boundaries built up through university
bureaucracies and interest groups in educational and research institutions.
Social values and the common good in science: The regeneration of an intellectuality informed by genuine insight into human values is increasingly seen by many people as a necessity for the future of secular societies and world development. Much improvement cannot take place, however, without clearing the ground through an analysis of the causes of misplaced materialism and consumerism in modern society. The intellectual climate will have to turn the tide against the losses incurred by the degeneration of understanding due to excessive dumbing down and qualitative loss of the breadth of vision, such as via mass media and falling standards of general education. Due to the global internet, the scientific establishment no longer has such an effective level of influence or control over determining what is fact as it once commanded.
The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists - or on their relatively unquestioned 'expert advice' to policy makers - is a threat to democratic decision-making. That 'knowledge is power' is an observable - though highly complex - fact, not least because it is a social, political and economical commodity sought after by interest groups with many different agendas. 'Control of knowledge gives power' almost qualifies as an axiom these days, perhaps along with 'knowledge is money', as shown by the purposes of the competing financiers of the worldwide science-based industry, not least the by the patent and intellectual rights business. The scientific establishment has such a high degree of control that power can sometimes indirectly determine what is scientific fact. The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists - or on their relatively unquestioned 'expert advice' to policy makers - is a threat to democratic decision-making.
Whatever the material conditions of a society, intelligent thought is a necessary factor in any social and moral renewal, even the predominant one, for thought obviously gives rise to attitudes, which give rise to acts. This point of view may be rather out of fashion nowadays, depicted as some kind wishful idealism, the reason being that the dominant trend-setters are rather consumerism, economism and popular culture. Add to this the tendency of current sciences hardly ever to examine a course of events as the consequence - or even as partial product - of human thought and ideas, but almost always vice-versa. The historical swing of the pendulum towards physicalism and sense observation in recent centuries, though extremely profitable for understanding of the physical universe, may have taken advanced civilization too far towards social materialism. While it took centuries to clear away all kinds of superstitious theological nonsense and speculative metaphysics, the suppression of thought and opinion which starts from a contrary assumption to physicalism has already caused an upsurge in so-called 'spiritual' and outright religious thought aiming to reinstate ignored beliefs, which may be regarded as hypotheses no less speculative than many a far-reaching scientific theory (with micro-physics as one example). To move closer to a more balanced - less pendulous - view of everything, a reasonable counterweight to the blanket physicalism of hard-data scientism seems necessary.
Ethical issues in scientific research and development: The confidence of the general public in the ethics of researchers and the attitudes
of many scientists towards nonscientific knowledge and insight has weakened.
Secular education, which adopted the scientific mentality to such a degree that
it was regarded as the substitute for any kind of spiritual values, is being
challenged nowadays, such as in the spread of so-called 'faith schools'. An educational system where a belief system provides the underlying values is unlikely to be unbiased in respects that could affect the tenets of the particular belief held.
Some sciences have, not without good grounds, been perceived as being more or less in the pay of business corporations, untrustworthy governmental agencies and even the war industries. The Ford Foundation famously backed and financed research from the 1950s onwards, which later brought disrepute on numerous researches it had funded. The predominant view among natural scientists in the 1980s was widely perceived as less eco-friendly than the reverse, and rightly so. Various scientists connected with industries were correctly seen to be functioning largely in opposition to the aims of the ecological or green movement in many instances worldwide, from producing chemical that pollute or destroy the natural environment. It was a long struggle taking decades (from The Silent Spring revelations of the early 1960s) to instate eco-thinking and 'green' policy against the pundits within the biological, health and related sciences. Despite many positive aims in developmental countries and threatened environments, science in industry was seen to be functioning largely in opposition to the aims of the ecological or green movement. This view has been changing as scientists' views and agendas have gradually changed accordingly. Ten percent of young people in the U.K., for example, belonged to some ecological organisation during the mid-1990s, while less than three per cent belong to political party organisations. A reaction against many trends fostered by science grew stronger and more evident, as exemplified by the movement against genetically modified food products and the formerly almost unlimited experimentation with animals, also for relatively crucial medical purposes.
The struggle to hinder sciences being or becoming instruments of blinkered, profit-seeking economic forces has taken important cues from ecology and the increased public insight and clamour on environmental issues, local and global. This has stimulated advances in social philosophies which go beyond and thus can complement strict physicalism and scientific reductionism. One theoretical development which fosters this is holarchic thinking. Holarchic approaches to scientific issues can exhibit the intricacy and complexity of relationships between parts and wholes found within all kinds of systems - ecological, social, medical and so forth. This helps avoid standpoints which suffer from shortsighted over-specialisation in narrow spheres. An strictly technical and hence supposedly 'value-free' approach to the world - especially towards human beings and societies, often distorts and smothers attempts at well-prepared practical measures free from repressive social forces and other unintended processes.
The science community can never be too self-reflective as to its limitations and its social motivations and aims. Sciences can benefit from constant redefinition of its agendas and practices more openly than hitherto, openly and in public distancing itself from partisan governmental and business interests, and listening carefully for the voice of people at large. The holistic and holarchic approaches to overall science development is as whole-oriented form of understanding which takes account of the complexity of many interacting systems and levels, thus to counteract the narrowness of lab science, over-restrictive assumptions, compartmentalised specialisation and analytical technicality. Genuine human understanding always aims to overcome the provinciality of any culture or subculture and extends its horizons to include a wide spectrum of viewpoints and values. For example, the list of problems which the social sciences record but fail effectively to deal with is long, not seldom because of the narrowing and distorting influence of an alienation from genuine common values and human concerns.
The common good requires science to have an overwhelmingly humanitarian role, dissociating itself
from the runaway global war industry, profit-fixated multinational corporations with private agendas, and
not least bad governments. Otherwise it undermines it intellectual independence and reputation. Its own agendas will always have a value-orientation, and the spirit of democracy requires that it align itself with real communal and individual needs, giving them at least equal priority in scientific research to special interests
of powerful, rich conglomerates. Moreover, science can easily slip into representing
a new kind of repressive colonialism, imposing its mentality and aims through
developmental aid on its own models on defenseless cultures and poor peoples
who are not consulted and who lack the information and means to make choices
which do not undermining their livelihoods and cultural values through the world
market. There is a need for hypotheses starting from experience
from diverse human cultures, contributing to a caring universalism in aiming to
discover and fulfil real human needs and articulate common values as part of
its understanding of the world.
and the Modern World (1925, p. 22)
2. L'ordre du Discours, (1970)