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Should humanity abandon science?

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Issue 1699

GM crops, global warming

Should humanity abandon science?

By Paul Mcgarr

PRINCE Charles managed to stir up a furious debate with a speech he made two weeks ago attacking “scientific rationalism”. He called for people to look to “intuition”, even to the “irrational”, instead. Charles drew on issues that concern millions of people like the threat of global warming and fears over genetically modified crops.

Some well known environmental campaigners leapt to Charles’s defence. Among them was Jonathon Porritt, former Friends of the Earth campaigner, now an adviser to Charles. More surprisingly, scientist Mae-Wan Ho, a leading critic of genetically modified crops, backed Charles. The prominent environmentalist Vandana Shiva echoed his arguments.

Not everyone was fooled into backing the royal outburst. Environmentalist George Monbiot wrote an excellent rebuttal of Charles’s argument. He pointed out that Charles was drawing on well founded concerns to push a reactionary message.

Charles poses as an environmentally concerned person who is simply reflecting a widespread feeling that modern science is out of control. He made his pronouncement after a “retreat” at the remote and austere Greek monasteries on Mount Athos. Yet he travelled there on a floating palace complete with ballroom, two speedboats and a helicopter.

This yacht’s owner, Charles’s close friend and Greek shipping tycoon John Latsis, is also rather at odds with the image Charles wants to project. Latsis is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher. He has funded the British Tories and backed the military dictatorship which ran Greece in the 1960s and 1970s. Charles’s only claim to credibility is that he was born into the Windsor family-which through robbery, murder and cheating ended up at the top of the British aristocracy in centuries gone by. A feeling for the irrational sits well in Charles’s family history. His ancestor James I published works defending the burning of “witches” in the 17th century. Another ancestor, Charles I, believed he could cure people of disease by touching them-before he lost his head in the 17th century English Revolution.

Prince Charles argues that in medieval times the Christian church in Europe provided “a clear sense” of the world. But, he says, “the West gradually lost this integrated vision of the world with Copernicus and Descartes and the coming of the scientific revolution”. This is an astonishing claim.

Society in Europe until the 17th century was based on the old feudal political structures. At the top was the king, who claimed to rule by divine right, and the aristocracy who owned all the land. At the bottom the mass of ordinary people worked the land and suffered appalling oppression.

THE CHURCH was a major landowner and exploited the mass of peasants as brutally as any lord. It was also the only official source of ideas in society. Questioning church teaching was punishable by fines, jail or even torture and death. The church told people that faith and dogma, not human understanding and knowledge, were the only source of truth. But with the development of towns, trade and new ways of working came new ideas. People began to question the church’s monopoly on truth and look to rational investigation of the world.

One of the first key figures in this “scientific revolution” was the 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. He shattered the church’s belief that the earth was the centre of universe. Instead he argued, and demonstrated, that the earth went round the sun. In the early 17th century such ideas were taken up by others like the scientists Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, and the philosopher Ren Descartes. Prince Charles attacked Descartes. But in 1630 the philosopher wrote a revolutionary work called The Universe.

Descartes supported Copernicus’s arguments and also argued that matter everywhere in the universe was basically the same and obeyed the same physical laws. This challenged a central church dogma that what happened in the “heavens” was divine and could not be explained by investigating the way matter on earth behaved. Descartes provided the philosophical cornerstone of major advances such as Kepler’s discovery of how planets moved and Isaac Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity.

Does Prince Charles want to reject such advances and argue that the sun goes round the earth? Would he defend the fearsome church inquisition who arrested Galileo and threatened to torture him until he was forced to recant his ideas? The church condemned Giordano Bruno, a contemporary of Descartes and Galileo, as a heretic, and he was burned at the stake exactly 400 years ago. Descartes himself was so fearful of persecution that he withdrew The Universe from publication, and only later released it anonymously. Fortunately, Charles’s predecessors failed in their attempts to crush scientific knowledge.

In England in the mid-17th century a revolution swept away the old order, and similar transformations followed elsewhere. That enabled people like Isaac Newton to develop the cornerstones of modern science. In the 18th century the process was deepened by the Europe-wide intellectual movement called the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution which followed it. These finally shattered the old dogmas and church authority and laid the basis for a rational, scientific approach to the world.

The “scientific revolution” was only one part of a wider social transformation which gave birth to modern capitalist society. The competition for profit at the heart of capitalism drives it constantly to find new ways of producing and new markets, and to develop new products. So the 19th century industrial revolution saw huge scientific advances, which lay behind electricity, steam, railways and countless other things which have transformed the world.

TWENTIETH century science has given us modern communications such as the telephone, the TV and the radio, the computer, the internet and much more. It has allowed an understanding of biology which has brought modern medicine and transformed life for millions.

For the first time in human history scientific advances have made possible a world in which no one has to go hungry, or needlessly die from disease. They have created a world in which everyone could have access to the widest knowledge of the world and live richer, fuller lives. Yet that is only one side of the picture.

Capitalism needs science, but will sacrifice and distort everything, including science, in its pursuit of profit. That has always led to the most barbarous misuses of scientific knowledge alongside genuine advances. Under capitalism science not only brings medicine, but has also been used to develop the horrors of the Nazi gas chambers or atomic weapons. Today the same contradictions lie at the heart of how science is used and misused. But the problem is capitalism, not a scientific understanding of the world.

Science does not create global warming. But the priorities of the car, oil and coal corporations, and the governments which serve them, mean profit is put before anything else. Our understanding of the threat of global warming in fact depends on science, as does the solution-to curb emissions of carbon dioxide. Prince Charles may be right to attack the dangers of genetically modified crops, but is doing so for entirely the wrong reasons.

Environmental campaigner George Monbiot puts the argument well: “The genetic engineering of crop plants is dangerous not because it is ‘usurping god’ or ‘tampering with nature’, but because it grants big business monopolistic control over the food chain with devastating consequences for both the poor and the eco-system. The problem arises not from science itself but from the political and economic context in which it operates. Whether science is used for or against us depends upon who controls the purse strings.”

The real point about science under capitalism is the very opposite of what Prince Charles says. Any serious and rounded scientific investigation does not focus on one thing in isolation from wider nature. Rather it seeks to integrate an understanding of the way part of the world works into a total picture, taking into account all of the connections and interactions.

Any such investigation would conclude that pumping out carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and putting more cars on the roads is a recipe for disaster. It is “irrational” not to recognise this scientific fact. Yet under capitalism the logic of profit means serious science is brushed aside, and the headlong rush to disaster continues. We do not need a retreat to the “irrational” or to embrace the heretic-burning philosophy that underlies Charles’s arguments. Rather we need a challenge to the madness of capitalism so that genuine scientific knowledge can be used by human beings to create a world which satisfies our needs today, and is safe for future generations.

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