Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Bad Science

"Questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart...
( from "The Scientist", by Coldplay)

In the video above, Natasha Thomas-Jackson* puts forward her call to science to serve humanity rather than indulging itself in dangers with unknown consequences. In this impassioned plea to science to recognise the inherent and immeasurable value of each individual human, she touches on many of the contradictions in scientific research and the all-too-frequent confusion in scientists' actions of the possible with the desirable, or even acceptable.
Natasha's words in the introductory video talk to a very current and relevant debate which has had a considerable airing in the UK recently both in terms of popular protests against GM food and just the other evening in a powerful new television documentary on BBC4.

"Surviving Progress", asked the question, what is progress? And why is it the common assumption of humanity is that all progress is good? As one illustration pointed out, the Stone Age hunters who developed weapons that killed two woolly mammoths rather than just one ate well; but the hunters who worked out how to drive a herd of two hundred over cliffs to kill them on a near industrial scale and so wipe them out as a species were suffering from a progress trap - perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later the change they had created destroyed their means of survival by destroying a key source of nutrition.

From the felling of the last tree on Easter Island to the rush to exploit our rapidly diminishing natural resources, humans often seem on auto-pilot: if things can change, they will, and we should always, universally, welcome change. We are the most creative species to have existed, yet simultaneously the most destructive, in spite of (or maybe because of) our unique intellect.

Nowhere it this more apparent than in the field of science. Science has driven the series of quantum leaps in human existence and experience in the last three centuries: life expectancy has risen exponentially, with human numbers rising similarly. In the Middle Ages, it took nearly thirteen centuries to add 200 million people to the human population of Earth; now it takes just three years.

This massive increase is the fruit of scientific advances in fields as diverse as medicine, engineering, agriculture and energy. It is without a doubt a benefit to countless individuals, and yet alongside this has been a blindness to some of the less beneficial impacts of these changes on people and their environment: so we live longer but in a world driven by unprecedentedly high levels of destructive consumption (with associated pollution and chronic ill health) and unprecedentedly low levels of personal happiness and community cohesion. Science has made facts of miracles, but in doing so it has often diminished as much as enhanced our existence.

Progress is not of itself good; like everything else, it depends on the choices of people to determine its nature. Science often portrays itself as a search for a discernible, measurable truth. Yet it is packed with assumptions and hypotheses it often simply cannot prove; it depends far more than it would ever admit to on theory and choice. And in this, the potential consequences of a scientific discovery or development must play a much bigger role in decision-making - the threads linking decisions for change need to be linked and pursued, not put to one side in an appraisal of simply the immediate target of change. 

For example, the current genetically modified crop trials in Britain might improve the yield of wheat by destroying aphids, but if aphids' numbers fall, other insect and bird species who feed on aphids may suffer, with a domino effect with untold consequences for the food chain and our own survival. And on what level can we be assured that the genetic modification of our food will not affect us? After all, this is not crossing different crop strains by natural means - rather it is altering their makeup at the most basic level. Fish genes are implanted in tomatoes to make them look redder; growth hormones are fed to chickens to make them grow faster and more profitably. There seems to be little in the way of any moral compass - simply if something can be done, in time, it will be done.

Left - Henrietta Lacks, possessor of key cells in the battle against cancer
This may sound exaggerated, but consider the willingness of many scientists to develop weapons of mass destruction; to undertake lethal experiments on humans and animals with nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals; or to assist companies seeking to copyright the DNA of medicinal plants in order to alienate and profit from the Commons of Nature. Consider the awful case of black American Henrietta Lacks and her "immortal cells" of cancer - where her tissue was taken without her knowledge or consent. It was cultivated and used for decades of experimentation which created huge strides in the treatment of the disease yet simultaneously some of her family members were left to die virtually untreated for cancer because they were uneducated, black, poor and unable to pay. Who or what has determined the moral choices in each of these cases? Often, it seems, has been the seeking of profit rather than truth; frequently with plenty of prevailing prejudice and bigotry silently thrown in for good measure.

It would be being more than over-optimistic to hope that things have changed - as one article put it recently, "For scientists, cells are often just like tubes or fruit flies—they’re just inanimate tools that are always there in the lab. The people behind those samples often have their own thoughts and feelings about what should happen to their tissues, but they’re usually left out of the equation." (Smithsonian Magazine).

What should drive science - profit, people or simply the possible? As we enter this ever braver new world, we need to ask what science is for other than to serve humanity and the planet safely, and how to limit it in terms of its actions and their potentially dreadful consequences without crushing its creative potential. Science has a vital role to play in our future - indeed, it will be one of several vital responses to the crisis of global warming, especially in developing clean energy. But it is precisely for this reason that science needs to be shaped and tempered by a morality and ethics which represent more than simply what is feasible or even scientifically rational. Science may be the means, but it can't be the end.

Just as there is good progress and bad progress, each of these have close and ready allies in good science and bad science. The choice of which path to take has to be guided by more than simple profit-seeking or experimenting simply because it is possible to do so. By law, by regulation, by democratic consent and engagement, progress should be for people, for all of us, our companion species on this planet and the precious, fragile biosphere without which survival, yet alone progress, would not be possible.


*Natasha Thomas-Jackson is Executive Director of RAISE-IT UP, a project in Flint, Michigan, USA, which promotes youth engagement, expression, and empowerment via performance arts opportunities, community involvement, and social justice initiatives. Please share her call to science in the video above; it deserves to be heard.


  1. I think you've missed the true nail here. I hope your thumb hasn't turned blue.
    It isn't science or scientists who are the problem; it is those who make decisions based on scientific discoveries, or those who offer funding for specific purposes. Where GM is concerned, for example, insufficient science has been done to predict the long-term side effects, and big business, not scientists, has appropriated the technology in order to profit from it.
    I watched the programme too, and felt it's thrust was aimed at a far wider field than just scientists. I believe it is a failing of human beings that we live in the moment, and can't conceive of a time when all the things in that moment we take for granted are no longer there. Like a climate we can exist in. Here, it is principally scientists who are leading the battle against climate change.
    You're right in your final conclusion, of course. Progress should be for people; that, too, requires science and scientists, but above all it requires a system of governance that does not elevate growth and personal profit above all else, and which recognises that things might change for the worse.

    It is our economic system, and our politicians who have been captured by it, and not the scientists, who must take the bulk of the blame for the "bad" progress.

  2. I heartily Agree with the comment from Anonymous above ... totally and wholeheartily without any reservations agree !

  3. Don't worry my thumb remains a deep hue of red!

    I very much agree with your analysis of how capitalism is driving our destructive overuse of resources - but I think it goes beyond merely appropriating scientific discoveries: as I tried to put in the article, it drives a lot of scientific research to deliver results that are profitable rather than useful and shapes research which scientists cannot reasonably claim is carried out in some moral vacuum.

    While the economic system undoubtedly drives a lot of this, I don't think it absolves scientists, collectively or individually, of their responsibility for how their work is carried out and what it is used for. Just as you rightly point out many scientists are at the forefront of countering global warming (a point I also make in relation to renewable energy), other scientists are happily engaged in developing supposed techno-fixes like GM, advocating seeding the oceans with iron filings and the atmosphere with aluminum oxide and seeking the seeming Holy Grail of carbon sequestration (never mind nuclear). Add to this the countless examples from capitalist, social democratic and former Soviet bloc states of eugenics experimentation and other cruel and dangerous genetic experimentation on animals and people, and the "curiosity" driver of doing things simply because they are possible clearly transcends economic systems. I am not in the alarmist camp, but the Hadron Collider represents to me a questionable activity given what most scientists admit is at least a "theoretical possibility" of it destroying the planet in moments. Who asked us if we were ok with that?

    Inevitably, the economic system anyone lives under pressures them towards particular behaviours and shapes the acceptability or otherwise of these, to some degree. Nevertheless, to my mind, scientists are as accountable as people in all walks of life for how they engage in their work and to what ends, both good and bad.