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Science Policy & Dr Strangelove

Getting Away from the Science of Dr Strangelove

 

David Bellamy and Alastair McIntosh say that science policy is failing both children and nature. In a plea for conservation, they argue that the wisdom of the ancients should inform the practice of science.

 

 

Published in The Guardian (education pages), 9 April 1996, pp. 2-3. This text is based on the address that we jointly wrote and which David delivered in defence of the Centre for Human Ecology at the Lothian Regional Council Chambers on 2 June 1995. It contributed towards the University Court agreeing a say of execution, which lasted for a year. See New Scientist editorial for more on this.

 

 

When Sir Ron Dearing reviews the universities, might he entertain posthumous evidence? Take Gandhi. What might he have said about universities? About their purpose and national contribution? And academic excellence?

 

Lots. For when asked what had been his greatest disappointment in life, Mahatma Gandhi replied, "The hard-heartedness of the educated."

 

Gandhi saw that education does not necessarily serve the poor. If based on an individualistic meritocracy without co-operation and service, it causes social stratification. Those who are “fit” - that is, those fitting the dominant culture, have the option to get up, get out and lose touch. Leadership deficits may then further impoverish those left behind.

 

So who, and what values, do the educated serve? Community of the Earth and all its peoples? Or the fears and greed of those holding grant and consultancy pursestrings spun on wheels of violation?

 

Back in 1943 Ananda Coomaraswami, the great Anglo-Sri Lankan thinker, spelt out fears pertinent to the educator. He warned: “... the contentment of innumerable peoples can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilisation; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker by art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organisation and standards of workmanship is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a ‘job’; until finally the ancient society is industrialised and reduced to the level of such societies as ours, in which business takes precedence of life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other peoples?”

 

Both Gandhi and Coomaraswami lived through a century which, in Sri Lanka for instance, has seen 280 indigenous varieties of rice reduced to a mere 27. They witnessed a world being destroyed with, too often, the supposedly "educated" at its helm: destroyed by those who hide behind a facade of rationality at the expense of feeling; by those who thereby deliver a language of public and corporate policy standardised to the global monoculture and  sterilised of ethics.

 

In contemporary Britain perhaps the most influential example of such language is the 1993 White Paper on Science, Technology and Engineering. This is effecting an influence on many of our universities which extends far beyond science. It has become a metaphor for Government policy on higher education. To evaluate it we need to reappraise, in Newman’s words,  the very “idea of a university.”

 

In the West the idea of a university started with Socrates and Plato. Plato established the “first” university, The Academy, in 387 BC in a grove outside Athens. This lends us the word, “academic.” Our highest academic qualification remains the PhD - literally, a doctorate in philo-Sophia - “love of the Goddess of Wisdom.” And the concept of academic “excellence” is rooted not in narrow disciplinary endeavour, but in the Greek understanding of all-round excellence in life - “aretê.”

 

It was with Phaedrus, in a grove by the river, barefoot and inspired by the spirituality of nature, that Socrates put forward his thesis that the endeavour to know love is the central motivation and goal of the philosopher. Without love there is no wisdom; only dry learning. And intriguingly, coming as it does from one of the greatest “dead white males” of them all, Plato’s Symposium tells us that Socrates derived such philosophy from a wise woman - Diotima of Manitinea.

 

This call to wisdom is the origin of the word, "vocation." A "professor" is one who professes their vocation; who honours their calling. Too often we forget such radical roots in the groveless academy of the modern university where cars outnumber trees. We risk producing graduates more comfortable with the virtual conviviality of a computer than with flesh-and-blood community. We risk turning out virtual academics processed to fit a virtual world which bears virtually no sentient relation to the real world of nature and human nature.

 

The 1993 science White Paper illustrates how far the prostitution of the universities is being pushed. It calls, fundamentally, for "key cultural change" to accord academia with the needs of government and industry. It predicates competitive wealth creation, seeking interaction on an escalating scale "between scientists and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of selling in competitive markets." A whole chapter on the military-industrial complex, including “spin-in” from civilian research, underscores the dearth of ethics, the ethics of death. And the only example of environmental technology is listed as a military derivative.

 

Our young are to be induced into all this by the Government having embarked upon "a radical agenda of changes in the education and training system, including changes in the school curriculum ... for the whole of compulsory schooling."

 

Of course, there are praiseworthy points in the White Paper. And nobody denies that we need industry with first rate scientific brains behind it. No. But gone is serious acknowledgement of the value of science, of academia generally, in offering to society a philosophic guiding hand. Gone is the classical scientific notion, as in Plato’s Timaeus, that we can better heal the disharmonies within ourselves through coming to know the harmonies of nature. Wisdom is out. Only the values of the market are valued.

 

And the big picture is worse, because all this is happening in the context of other geopolitical policies which are freeing-up world trade for those who presume the freedom to trade “freely” (and with due limited liability).

 

The White Paper remarks that, "The history of the United Kingdom has shown the intimate connection between free trade, the application of science to tradable products, and national prosperity." It goes on to attribute to the British industrial revolution the creating of "the modern world," and warns, in self-fulfilling prophesy, that, "In a world where ever fiercer competition prevails, history's lessons are highly pertinent."

 

Meanwhile, in India and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of the world's poorest farmers have demonstrated and remonstrated with their Government not to sign GATT - the Global Agreement on Trades and Tariffs. Through setting up the World Trade Organisation (WTO), GATT has established the policing of trading freedom in a pre-emptive absence of socio-ecologial responsibility. Little wonder the Department of Trade and Industry can feel comfortable in advising British businessmen to exploit the low wages of a country like Vietnam ... “selfishly” ...

 

... What is going on here?

 

Nothing that Gandhi and Coomaraswami did not see coming. WTO armed with Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) means, for instance, that village market places in India or Sri Lanka can be flooded with low-cost genetically engineered crops. The selling of local varieties will be undercut.

 

In just a few years strains ideally suited to the vicissitudes of local conditions -  often low-input low-output (LILO) varieties - will be further squeezed out of  the gene pool as “uneconomic.” The human culture underpinning such traditional agri-culture ... the implicit meanings of many local practices ... will vanish forever. Often these codify time-proven social and ecological sustainability.

 

Specialist seed-supply and agrochemical industries will further spread like translocated species. And in capital cities the architects of such policies will toast their wisdom and award themselves honorary doctorates for having ratcheted up new steeples of GNP; pointedly pointless monuments along the “Hell’s merry-go-round” racetrack of “development.”

 

If Fortress Europe further shuts its doors on the cry of nature and the poor, all Coomaraswami’s prophetic warnings about the “withering touch of our civilisation,” perhaps including  “fear and hatred” of Western peoples, will fall as a self-ordained curse upon our grandchildren.

 

... Indeed, what is going on here is that our science and related economic policy fails fully to recognise the social and ethical context in which it rests. It hijacks the altruistic motives of many of our scientists. It ignores service in and to the fullness of humanity. It desecrates nature’s intrinsic value.

 

Such science without social and ecological justice is the science of Dr Strange-love. It is a travesty of  vocation.

 

The time has come for true academics - those with a foot in both the ivory tower and the grove - to reunite the two great philosophies: moral and natural. In working with power, which we all do, we must insist upon naming, unmasking, and engaging the powers in order constantly to transform them. The power of love must supercede the love of power. We must spurn educational hard-heartedness just as trenchantly as we reject sloppy thought. The task of education must be literally to bring us to our senses: head, heart and hand.

 

Only in being prepared to speak truth to power and exposing the shameful sham of any hemlock cup do we prove professionalism. Socrates saw this as the “gadfly” role, upsetting comfortable complacency by “never ceas(ing) to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you.”

 

Academia, activists, industry, government and aware people can together deliver an ethic of world conservation if there is co-operation. Recent news that the rate of ozone layer depletion is slowing demonstrates this.

 

The future is bright, potentially. The pathways towards sustainable livelihood are apparent, substantially. But universities must not be displaced from educating towards these humanitarian ends by directives like William Waldegrave’s 1993 White Paper. We need better than an arms dealers’ charter from the same stable as the Scott Report. Our children deserve better. Dearing might recommend better. The Earth itself hangs in the balance.

 

 

 

Professor David Bellamy is a botanist and broadcaster. Alastair McIntosh directs the MSc course at the Centre for Human Ecology, presently under threat of closure by Edinburgh University. His critique of science policy leads the current issue of the philosophical, Environmental Values.

 

 

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