Science in crisis

By Mark Wakefield

Tin oxide
Tin oxide, viewed through an electron microscope. Science needs to overcome the negativity caused by excessively managerialist justifications of its value.

Last week, acting in my role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill, I introduced Tom McLeish as a guest speaker at a fund raising event. Tom is a polymer Physicist and Pro-Vice Chancellor for research at Durham University. He is also a Lay Reader in the Church of England and has just published a book entitled Faith and Wisdom in Science. Demonstrating an impressive breadth of knowledge, he makes a strong case for both science and theology being disciplines that share, if not the same methods, then at least a fascination with questions concerning the physical world, its structures and processes. The result is a genuinely fresh and positive contribution to the mostly (by now) tedious and sterile science/religion debate.

Beyond this however, one of the things that fascinated me most about Tom’s book was its argument that science is facing a crisis of both meaning and purpose. As he puts it:

“There is a narrative vacuum where the story of science in human relationship with nature needs to be told.”

As an arts graduate, I’m well aware of how the humanities have long been afflicted by the loss of “metanarrative” so celebrated by “post-modern” theorists and which – in my view at least – leads to artistic output that is often as pointless as it is self-referential. That there is such a crisis in science had never occurred to me, which makes me realise how much I’d fallen (unconsciously) for the lazy assumption that science is somehow, of its essence, a “value-free” activity, as if any such activity is ever possible.

Tom Mcleish writes in such a way as to make this deficit of meaning and purpose really matter. The lack of narrative of which he speaks leaves science in a position where its raison d’etre is to promote economic growth, a view apparently endorsed by the British government in the 1993 White Paper on the state funding of research:

“The mission of each research council has been changed to meet the needs of users and to support wealth creation…thereby enhancing the United Kingdom’s competitiveness and quality of life.”

For those familiar with the Vogel Wakefield blog, we are back with our old friend managerialism, that reductionist creed that views human activity as meaningful only in so far as it can be measured to the end of creating yet more material wealth. The reason why this matters is that science plays such a dominant role – in advanced, industrial economies at least – in mediating our relationship with the natural world. If science operates according to managerialist principles and is not guided by anything nobler, then it is inevitably locked into an exploitative relationship with nature.

McLeish sees this problem as lying at the heart of the now widespread distrust of scientists and the paucity of what passes for public debate about a range of pressing issues – nanotechnology, genetic engineering, nuclear power and so on. He provides a fascinating account of work done by some of his fellow academics at Durham who researched the debate concerning nanotechnology to try and understand what was going on beneath the surface claims and counter-claims. Drawing on the work of philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, they identified five underlying narratives of suspicion which influenced the nanotechnology debate and which relate back to myths both ancient and modern. They are:

  • Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of desire
  • Pandora’s Box – the narrative of evil and hope
  • Messing with nature – the narrative of the sacred
  • Kept in the dark – the narrative of alienation
  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer – the narrative of exploitation

Tom McLeish argues that unless these underlying narratives are acknowledged, meaningful public debate is impossible. But much more needs to happen than that. As he self-deprecatingly admits, scientists are often not the most effective communicators and certainly not when faced with critics voicing the kind of visceral concerns contained in the five narratives.

But above all what’s missing is a positive narrative for science that can act as an effective counterbalance to such negativity. As he says, we need resources that “help re-situate science within the long story of human culture”. He goes on to provide examples from his own Christian tradition that can help with this task. For instance, in addressing the “messing with nature” narrative of suspicion, he shows how the notion of humanity being God’s “co-creators” sanctions science as a “holy task”, one that, imbued as it is with the notion of care and stewardship, avoids the extremes of a yearning for some imaginary and perfect natural state on the one-hand and the short-sighted and human-centered exploitation of the natural world on the other. As he says, while such an approach is far from creating “fenced off areas with ‘thou shalt not trespass signs‘ … it does keep a compass in its hand along with a clear direction of travel.”

Needless to say, as Tom McLeish acknowledges, there is no prospect of Christianity or any faith (be it theistic or otherwise) alone providing a positive narrative underpinning for science. But as he argues, the need for such a narrative is urgent. Given the resources that already exist, such as those of his own tradition, it can’t be beyond us to come together to create such a narrative. The future of our planet is likely to depend on our recovery of a sense of meaning and purpose in science, as in other fields of endeavour.

Image courtesy Luciana Christante.