Two steps forward, three steps back?

Setting Priorities

Two steps forward, three steps back?

Whatever happened to the brave new future that science had once promised?

During the European Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, people hoped that science and rationality would triumph over superstition and myth and deliver us from the tyranny of kings, autocratic rule and religious dogma.

Despite such hope, however, today the world faces many deep seated problems that science has arguably often fuelled. Has science taken over from where former tyrannies left off? Indeed, has science itself become the new mythology?

In order to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to the public, politicians and the media in the West expressed moral outrage about the 'barbaric' laws of Afghanistan — women denied access to education, a lack of freedom of thought and death by stoning. After that, it was a case of ‘quick, follow the compass, send in the troops, and let’s teach those barbarians how things should be done’.

Not the magnetic compass, but the dodgy one of morality — the people of science and rationality versus the people of darkness and ignorance. Well, that’s how moral crusader Tony Blair and tub thumping George Bush and his cronies tried to sell their geo-political exploits to us all. 

After all, the West has seen the light. West found it through the lens of a microscope and at the bottom of a test tube and was blinded with it as it discovered the marvels of nuclear fission and all manner of technological delights.

West found the answer. West found the truth. Or did it?

‘The truth' is a tricky thing to pin down, even in science. It is built on shaky stilts that rest on shifting foundations. Science historian Thomas Kuhn wrote about the revolutionary paradigm shifts in scientific thought, whereby established theoretical perspectives can play the role of theology, albeit a secular type, and can serve as a barrier to the advancement of knowledge, until the weight of evidence and pressure from proponents of a new theoretical paradigm is overwhelming. Then, at least according to Kuhn, the old faith gives way and a new truth changes. From Newton to Einstein, theoretical paradigms have come and gone.

Philosopher Paul Feyerabend also argued that science is not an 'exact science'. The manufacture of scientific knowledge involves a process driven by various sociological, methodological and epistemological conflicts and compromises, both inside the laboratory and beyond. Despite the nature of this negotiated order, however, much of the modern world still tends to bow down to science as the giver of hard truth.

Whatever its merits or shortcomings as a discipline, it is the way in which science is used by powerful groups that is the real issue. US sociologist Robert Merton highlighted the underlying norms of science as involving research that is not warped by vested interests, the common ownership of scientific discoveries and subjecting findings to organised, rigorous scrutiny within the scientific community. How science is funded, used and manipulated by fund providers and other vested interests quite often runs counter to and debases such lofty ideals.

Cloak something in the vestiges of science and it takes on an almost mythical character that is not to be questioned, no matter how poor the underlying scientific research may have been. In many respects, science and technology have in fact become the new mythology.

In this day and age, a highly placed lobby group or expensively funded campaign targeted at the press, TV or social networking media can convince almost anyone that some incredulous outlook is scientific truth. I refer you to the anti-global warming brigade or the sometimes spurious claims forwarded by big pharmaceutical or agribusiness companies. When is science not science? When studies are funded and designed to secure predetermined outcomes, or findings are cherry picked to justify a stance.

Serious thought

Science has undoubtedly led to technological advances and has improved life for millions. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But what does it say about us as a species when people can sit and watch a probe going to the moon but turn a blind eye to millions a couple of hundred kilometres away, living in the direst situations imaginable? Where is the ‘progress’ and ‘age of reason’ in a world where people use sophisticated weaponry to kill in the name of peace or destroy the ecology for the sake of profit? Science matters. But so do priorities.

The radical German writer, Herbert Marcuse, summed up the problem facing us by saying that the capabilities, both intellectual and technological, of contemporary society, are immeasurably greater than before, which means that the scope of society’s domination over the individual is also immeasurably greater than ever before.

Whether it’s religious faith or secular reason, both have promised us versions of nirvana, yet the world now faces major problems. Religion and science have a history of colluding with the powerful to help produce the mess they claim to have the remedy for. Did we become closer to god and goodness when religion ruled? Did we find the light when scientists ended up in the pay of governments and wealthy corporations? Or, did we become blinded by warped morality?

The ability to genetically modify foods and convince farmers to ditch centuries’ old tried and tested methods of crop production accounts for little when it results in death, starvation and fear of the future. Patent your product and foist it on some hapless farmer, or patent another and make it too costly for the common person to treat his or her life threatening disease. The result is the will of god, or should I say the actions of profiteers and some cost-benefit analyst who worked it all out on a spreadsheet?

But god is watching. No, wait a minute, it’s not god, it’s the CCTV cameras and the security agencies. God was kicked out of the building and was replaced with technology long ago. Hold on though, I just found him under lock and key in the store cupboard to be brought out occasionally in an attempt to inject a bit of morality into the expediency of it all.

The road ahead

So, where is humankind heading? We’ve achieved much in a relatively short space of time.  Anatomically modern appearing humans originated in Africa about 2,00,000 years ago, and we reached full behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago. To put things in perspective, dinosaurs were on the earth for 250 million years.

Just think of what has been achieved during our time here — jet and space travel, steel and glass megacities, literature and philosophy, medical, genetic and scientific advances, computer technology, mass communications, etc. It’s very impressive. But our achievements must be placed into context.

Rulers and politicians have spilled rivers of blood and continue to do so just to become temporary masters of some or other part of the planet, and endless cruelties have been visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the globe upon inhabitants elsewhere.

In the name of progress, we have driven many animals to the point of extinction, treat the planet as a garbage dump, pollute the air, melt the ice caps and continue to rape the land of its natural resources. You don’t have to revisit the effects of last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to appreciate our impact, but it helps.

As dolphins, sea birds and whales lay dying in the oil-soaked sea, a finger had to be pointed at the sheer arrogance of it all. No effective contingency plans were put in place for such deep-sea drilling. As long as profits were guaranteed, the risks were worth taking.

Blame game

Tony Hayward, the then CEO of BP, argued that the responsibility for safety on the drilling rig was Transocean’s because it was their rig, their equipment, their people, their systems, their safety processes. Obama blamed BP, the US people blamed BP and Obama, BP tried to wriggle free by blaming others. Lax regulations were sought by the oil-rich lobby, and it got what it wanted. It’s clear that many had their snouts in this unholy mess.

If we wish to save ourselves and all other living things, we must rethink how we organise ourselves on this planet. The international system of trade and finance has allowed capital and finance to be shifted around the globe at ease, resulting in big profits and huge oils spills, easy money and cheap labour, private profit and public havoc. Commodity and financial speculators can plunge millions into poverty and hunger, yet all of this is done according to the warped rationale of the market, supported by economic dogma and propaganda masquerading as science.

Today, food prices and people are subject to the whims of speculators, tomorrow it could be water. There is much talk of ‘saving the planet’, but the planet was around a long time before humans emerged, and it will still be here a long time after we have departed the scene.

Even if we do our worst, many millenia down the line, the planet will recover. We don’t necessarily need to save the planet. We must save us from ourselves. Our impact on this planet has been immeasurable, but our timescale of existence might well turn out to be a small fraction when compared with that of the dinosaurs.

Humankind now stands at a fork in the road. One option is to carry on down our current path by accepting the status quo and all which that entails — diminishing democracy, the increasing influence of international financial institutions and consequent destruction of local economies, science pressed into the service of a worldwide arms industry, endless conflict over finite resources, mass suffering and even eventual oblivion for the species.

However, there is the alternative route, and many individuals and organisations across the world (and even countries such as Burma or Costa Rica) have already chosen it. This path involves debunking the myth that the endless pursuit of high GDP growth on the back of deregulation and increased power for the market, speculators and corporations is how we measure progress.

The choice is ours because, as physicist and astronomer Carl Sagan once said, there is no hint that help will come from out there in the cosmos, from god or anyone else, to save us from ourselves. If we don’t help ourselves, who will? We have to, because, just like the oil-soaked sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico, there is nowhere else to run.

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