The New Statesman Essay - Bring back common sense

If we continue to heed experts, we shall have more disasters like BSE, argues Colin Tudge

To be anti-tech these days, in the snooty, arty English tradition, is effete and just plain silly. Science has not only revealed a universe that far excels the wildest flights of poetic imagination; it also allows vast numbers of human beings to survive. Without vaccines and telecommunications and all the other high technologies, they could not do so.

But we - society - and all our leaders, governments, priests and experts of all kinds, have lost control of our own abilities. We can do anything, but we have a very poor sense of what's really worth doing, or how to ensure that we get what is really needed, and avoid what is not. Science and high technology are caught up in economic and moral feedback loops that often seem to ensure they will operate antisocially, for the benefit of only a minority and at the cost of most of us. For the most part, we stand back and watch this happen. We accept the assurances of experts and governments that all is being done for the best, and that nothing can or should be done to change the way things are. Those who do protest are held to be crudely Luddite.

Nothing better illustrates this whole sorry process than BSE. In agriculture, there used to be something called husbandry. It was often picturesque - cows in their meadows, the hens in the yard - but this isn't just a matter of nostalgia. Traditional husbandry was rooted in good sense. It had to be: if the farmers didn't get the principles right, the animals died. Productivity was limited - not too much milk per cow, or too many piglets per sow - or the animals collapsed. Overcrowding promoted infection, so they were given space. The time and distance between slaughter and consumption were as short as possible, because all kinds of microbes were ready to feast on the unprotected corpses.

Science and hi-tech can be used to abet good husbandry. Ecology could give us more flowery meadows and more adroit discouragement of pests. Animal psychologists are devising ways of raising animals which allow them some personal and social freedom. Hi-tech is not, as has often been claimed, appropriate only in rich countries. In rural India, people and beasts alike would benefit from a robust vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease. The farmers of the Sahel need sorghum that is resistant to mildew - and this requires genetic engineering, because no known sorghums contain suitable resistance genes that could be introduced by standard breeding. In general, hi-tech can promote individual liberty and social autonomy (as demonstrated by the telephone and the internet). Science and technology are not innately "inhuman". They can lend themselves to whatever is asked of them.

But often science and technology are used to flout and override the common sense from which good husbandry emerges. Animal feed is made more monotonous, not less, because it's cheaper that way. The animals are packed as closely as possible, however cruel and foul this may seem, and infection is kept at bay in a rough and ready fashion by tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of antibiotics, which promote bacterial resistance. The time and distance between farm and kitchen grow longer, because wholesalers and retailers alike demand "shelf-life".

This state of affairs has come about for all kinds of reasons, which are not necessarily evil. Evil is not the point. More seriously, we have created institutions and a modus operandi that produce evil outcomes, of which BSE is, so far, the most spectacular.

We are wedded, for a start, to the free market, and it is childish to suggest that this is necessarily to the bad. Free markets can deliver the goods that people want much more efficiently than centralised economies can. Yet the cash that flows around the free market will inevitably become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands unless this is vigorously prevented. In agriculture, it has not been prevented. In the world at large, there are many small farmers and retailers, yet production and distribution at all levels are dominated by remarkably few companies.

Further, though profit is not wrong in itself, it does impose constraints. Production must be maximised, value must be added, and costs must be cut. The dangers are clear. In agriculture, maximisation of output leads directly to cruelty: dairy cows really cannot produce 9,000 litres of milk per year (at least six times the output of wild cattle) without severe suffering and shortening of life. Flowery meadows do not produce the most energy per hectare - so they must give way to custom-bred, monocultural ryegrass. In Britain, this, rather than pollution, has become the main cause of environmental degradation. Labour, in general, is more expensive than machinery - so the workforce must be cut, and cut again. Overall, agriculture must be industrialised. The fields must be vast and packed exclusively with crops. The livestock must be bundled into "factory farms".

These are familiar shortcomings of capitalism. They do not by themselves make capitalism unworkable, but they do have to be looked out for; and in agriculture, clearly, they haven't been. The capitalism of farming is primitive. Agriculture has been allowed to become ugly, brutal, philistine, antisocial: in many important ways, the antithesis of civilisation. Science and the high technologies to which it gives rise have become party to the ugliness. They seem committed to drive those aspects of modern agriculture that, on moral and aesthetic grounds, seem the least desirable.

The rot truly set in in the early 1970s, when a government report chaired by Lord Rothschild proposed the "customer-contractor" principle. Science, said Rothschild, should be promoted in so far as it generates high technologies of the kind that can be seen to produce profit. Many, at the time and since, thought this approach was crass; that scholarship should as far as possible be independent of short-term gain. But Rothschild appealed to Edward Heath's government and to all governments since - especially Tony Blair's - and so the loop was established. Increasingly, scientific research is paid for by private enterprise, which in practice means big business. Big business promotes the kind of scientific research that will provide the kind of technologies that can underpin the most profitable modus operandi. The most profitable modus operandi in agriculture is industrialisation.

The result is deeply pernicious. The technologies that might improve life in villages in India or the Sahel are not, for the most part, developed: or if they are, then this is mostly as a side-product of technologies developed for other purposes elsewhere. The ecological science that could provide more flowery meadows, and the behavioural studies that could give us kinder husbandry, are very difficult to fund. They are marginalised. But the technologies that can (to take an example that has become a cliche) add a few quid to Monsanto's profits, by adding genes to rape to make it more resistant to herbicides and thus simplifying weed control, are given a free run. Thus it is that science and technology are again emerging, just as they do in times of war, as the natural enemies of what many people would consider to be the values of civilisation.

Commonsense husbandry, the kind that anyone who had dealings with animals would naturally espouse, says you don't feed the flesh of cows to cows. That is aesthetically and morally unpleasing - disrespectful to the beast - and, to be more down to earth, it could spread infection. But this is precisely what the modern cattle-producers did. We know what infections cattle can get, they said. We know that if we boil the flesh enough, the pathogens will all die. Aesthetics? Don't be silly. Good husbandry? Don't you know that the point of hi-tech is to supersede common sense?

The government asked Lord Justice Phillips to find out what went wrong and he "pulled no punches", as the journalists say. But did his report really get to the heart of things? It wasn't his brief, after all, to ask why hi-tech in general is deployed as it is - in the world at large and in agriculture in particular - and how we came to this sorry pass; so the underlying mechanism has been left in place, business as usual. It isn't the structure that is at fault, apparently; just a few ad hoc mistakes and oversights. A few greybeards have been hauled over the coals, but the deeper waters have been left untroubled. We should be asking how and why it is that science and technology have become the special tools of short-term profit; and why other considerations must always go by the board.

We should also be asking why the scientists who have appeared in public these past 15 years or so, as BSE has worked its course, have been so mealy-mouthed. Scientists in public seem to conceive it as their role not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They do not seem to be on the side of society as a whole (peremptorily known as "the public"). Instead, they seem most concerned to protect the dignity of their calling; to avoid saying anything that "goes beyond the evidence".

Their famous - it should be infamous - phrase is "There is no evidence that . . .", which they use in all the contexts in which their opinion is sought. In this case, they told us "There is no evidence that BSE can spread from species to species" - which later became, more specifically, ". . . can spread from cattle to humans". Invariably, they fail to add "But absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence". To append this vital codicil would be to venture beyond mere data - actually to flesh out an idea; and this, they evidently feel, is beyond the call of duty or, perhaps, more than their job is worth. But the bland assertion, "There is no evidence . . .", though commonly all too true, lends itself to disastrous misunderstanding, as John Gummer so sadly (we may hope not tragically) demonstrated when he publicly fed his daughter with a potentially dubious hamburger.

Scientists are very good at getting hot under the collar, firing pompous round-robins to national newspapers, complaining about "irresponsible" media and the "ignorant" public (that's us, folks). They should get off their high horses; remove the beams from their own eyes; ask whose side they are on; consider that they are citizens, too, and as such are moral beings; consider that the morality of the scholarship they espouse is not just that of the prevailing government, or of commerce.

Lord Phillips might also have asked why we still tie ourselves so complaisantly to the establishment. The committee that met under Sir Richard Southwood in 1988 to assess the unfolding of BSE was learned, eminent and well-intentioned. Yet it left stones unturned. Thousands of ordinary, intelligent people, who were neither learned nor eminent, would have done a much better job. They would not have taken at face value the scholarly but vague suggestion that BSE was unlikely to jump from cattle to people, even if it seemed to jump to cats. They would have asked awkward questions such as "how do you know?" and "why not?". It is primitive, hunter-gatherer politics simply to assume that the tribal elders necessarily know best. Even if they sometimes do, they can be too polite to each other. This general lesson has to do with the nature of government: that experts aren't enough; that mandarins have their limitations; that committees of inquiry need people on board and possibly in charge, alert and importunate, specifically to make trouble.

Yet the greatest lesson by far extends to all human knowledge and endeavour. Quite simply, it is logically impossible to know how much we do not know. The technicians of the 1980s assumed that if they boiled cow meat for long enough, then all infective agents would be killed. After all, scientists over many years had compiled a weighty catalogue of bacteria, worms and other parasites of the kind that may live in cattle flesh, and knew that they would all be killed by heat.

But BSE is not caused by a bacterium or a worm. It is caused by a prion: a kind of rogue protein that spreads like a computer virus - a thing undreamt of until recent years: a completely novel life form that multiplies without the agency of DNA. How could the feed processors have known that such a thing existed?

And that is precisely the point: they couldn't. Science at any one time gives the impression that its explanations are complete; that everything pertinent has been taken into account. Scientists often speak as if this were the case: as if there were nothing left to do but dot the Is and cross the Ts. But this feeling of pending omniscience must always be an illusion. The physiology books of the 1960s that I was exposed to at university explained, in apparently exhaustive detail, how the human body works: yet they omitted the long string of mechanisms and systems that have been discovered since and are now known to be crucial - cyclins, apoptosis, genomic imprinting, the many roles of nitric oxide, and so on and so on. Perhaps modern science has already floodlit most of the universe. But perhaps, so far, it has merely lit one narrow, twisting path across the darkness. When you look out from the point of illumination, it is impossible to tell the difference.

The ancient Greeks appreciated this. Their technology and philosophy were wonderful. Yet they knew how little they really knew, and how delusory it was to suppose they were in charge. Whenever they grew overconfident, they were sure to be struck down by some hideous ague. The Mediterranean is littered with their abandoned settlements. Thus they conceived the cardinal sin of "hubris". In secular terms: don't chance your arm. More grandly: don't usurp the power that properly belongs to the gods.

If we didn't chance our arms at all, then there could be no new technologies of any kind, or any applied science; and that, taken all in all, would be a bad thing. But we should always bear in mind how vast is the scope of our ignorance - and, worse, that we cannot know how vast it is; that there is always a chance of disaster that may be quite different in kind from anything that can yet be conceived, and far bigger. BSE shows precisely this. Always, then, we should weigh the perceived gain against the possibility of disaster that is not only unknown, but is in principle unguessable. BSE is a catastrophe - and what was the perceived gain that gave rise to it? Fractions of a penny off a gallon of milk. We hardly need concepts as grand as hubris to tell us how ludicrous that was; how wicked, indeed. Common sense would have done the trick. The hubris lies in the mentality that has written common sense out of the act.

Colin Tudge's latest book, In Mendel's Footnotes: genes and genetics from the 19th century to the 22nd, is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99)