William Reville: Science needs to remain free

Public control could allow ideological or economic forces to distort a rational agenda

The general public distrusts much of science-based technology such as genetic modification. Above, a protest against biotech giant Monsanto in Costa Rica in May. Photograph: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

The general public distrusts much of science-based technology such as genetic modification. Above, a protest against biotech giant Monsanto in Costa Rica in May. Photograph: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

 

The general public distrusts much of science-based technology, such as genetic modification, nuclear power, modern agriculture, telecommunication masts and so on. Better communication could remove some of this distrust but postmodern sociologists, hostile to science from a philosophical point of view, urge that science be put under “democratic control”.

Postmodernism is interested only in controlling science and threatens to hold back or reverse decades of progress. This issue is discussed by Dr Marcel Kuntz, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France, in Trends in Biotechnology (December 2016).

Science believes in a real natural world consisting of real objects that behave under the influence of physical laws that existed before we discovered them. Science has developed a method of investigating this natural world through observation, measurement and experimentation – the scientific method – to uncover the truths of objective natural reality.

Postmodernism is a movement that succeeded modernism from the late 1960s onwards. Unlike modernism, which was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism is sceptical and suspicious of reason. Postmodernism questions the scientific assumptions of an objective natural reality and the validity of scientific truth both on the basis of these truths belonging to larger cultural frames and by heavy criticism of the scientific method.

Systems of thought

The strong school in postmodern sociology, called “science studies”, claims that all systems of thought are simply different constructs of reality, each with its own political agenda, and “scientific objectivity” is no more than an expression of one culture among many.

Commenting on this postmodern view of the world, diametrically opposed to science (not to mention common sense), Dr Kuntz says, “postmodernism considers that scientists cannot be trusted and that their research must be subject to a participative democracy”.

Kuntz specifically addresses a recent report of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS), Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty and Aligning Research with Public Values (Academic Press, 2016).

This report proposes discussing this new gene drive technology with various public “stakeholders” outside the scientific community, not only about possible risks posed by gene drives (preferential increase of certain genetic elements in a population) but also discussions about scientific research and research directions upstream of the gene drive end product.

Kuntz reckons that this NAS approach would be a disastrous mistake, allowing postmodernism to firmly stick its foot in the door of the scientific enterprise to challenge the scientific method. He points to previous failed attempts to implement participative models in the area of the genetic modification of plants. Such models repeatedly failed to prevent the destruction of field experiments by activists.

Political control

Science is obliged to share its knowledge with the public and to discuss the pros and cons of science-based technologies. However public or political control of science would be disastrous allowing ideological and economic forces to distort a rational science agenda.

The fate of Russian biology under Stalinism comes to mind. Science must be allowed to freely advance knowledge of the natural world on all fronts, although, of course, whether or not specific applications of this knowledge (technology) are brought into widespread use is a matter for society as a whole to determine.

Scientific knowledge is the closest we can come to purely objective knowledge, and science is one of the few things in our world that really works well. We would be crazy to erect roadblocks in its way.

Although there is no such thing as absolutely objective knowledge and even scientific knowledge is data interpreted in the light of theory, there is no doubt that science provides us with a reliable map of the natural world.

We all, postmodernists included, acknowledge this every time we switch on a lightbulb, use the refrigerator or microwave oven, make a phone call, use a PC, iPhone or satnav, watch TV, listen to the radio, travel by aircraft, get vaccinated and so on. In the words of Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, 1960, “Science is the most successful activity human beings have ever engaged upon”.

And now let me give you a little homework exercise: list the major contributions that postmodern science studies sociologists have made to the wellbeing of society.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

understandingscience.ucc.ie

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