On trust

Science - Ziauddin Sardar on a century's loss of faith

Science used to provide us with certainty. It gave us confidence in our ability to solve any problem. It was triumph all the way. Scientific discoveries, we believed, would not only transform knowledge, but destroy dogmatism and superstition. Science was well on the way to solving the evils of poverty through the conquest of nature.

Today, this absolute confidence has all but evaporated. All the progress in science has had no effect on global poverty, and superstition is still with us. "Trust" in science has never been at such a low ebb. The public views it much as it sees corporations such as BT and Shell, with cynicism and suspicion.

It has taken a good 50 years for this faith to be eroded. About halfway through the century, we discovered something new. Or, rather, rediscovered something old. Science can do evil. With the nuclear bomb - the Bomb as it came to be called - we emerged from centuries of childlike innocence. We had had a warning with poison gas in the first world war; but that had been considered an aberration. But the Bomb was the real thing. The Biblical idea that the apple of knowledge had a dangerous core was back on the agenda.

Since then, science has repeatedly brought us to the verge of self-destruction with frightening chemical and biological weapons, ecological devastation and potentially disastrous changes in the climate. There has been an accumulation of problems and threats about safety, health and environment. Now the reputation of science has changed beyond repair.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, we saw the emergence of two different kinds of science. We might call them yang and yin, or macho and soft, or hi-tech and natural. One variety is the problem; the other is part of the solution. In the first camp we have, notoriously, high energy physics, molecular biology and genetic engineering. In the second, there are the environmental sciences, the new science of chaos and complexity and alternative technologies.

The crucial difference between them is in methodology and world-view. The programme of science has been based almost exclusively on reduction. To discover the mathematical basis of "reality", reduce the agglomerate to its tiny crystals, reduce each crystal into molecules, break molecule into atoms - and atoms are still too complex for precise mathematical description. So from the atom select an electron or two, from the nucleus its constituent nucleons and other "elementary" particles; and carry on reducing to strings and n-dimension ad infinitum. This reductive way of looking at the world has drastically impoverished science. The next logical step is a small one: we now even look at ourselves as nothing more than atoms knocking around in the void.

In contrast, softer science looks at the world more holistically. Chaos and complexity theories, for example, focus on interactions, rather than individual actors. The emphasis is on synthesis and recognising the collective spontaneity of a complex, interconnected and interdependent world. Not surprisingly, this new science recognises that uncertainty will henceforth be the dominant mode of our existence.

However, the distinction between macho and soft science is far from absolute. High-tech medicine, for example, is now in dialogue with alternative and complementary medicine. But the public does not always accept this crossover. When Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto, tells us he wants to feed the world's hungry, we laugh.

But the distinction can be useful in identifying the strategies that are likely to be effective in solving the pressing problems of the 21st century, most of which, in large part, will be the result of the triumphs of macho science. Will the excess production of CO2 be reduced sufficiently by "emission permit" deals between America and the poor countries? Will world poverty be alleviated by cash crops such as shrimp that destroy the mangrove swamps and strip away the protection from cyclones? Will our old friend nuclear power rise again on the spurious claim that it is CO2-friendly?

Will science recover the public's trust? I think so. Issues of science policy, both at government as well as corporate level, will be increasingly determined by public concerns. That means both the direction as well as much of the content of science will change. It will cease to be what we call "normal science". It will enter a post-normal phase. In other words, it will become part of the solution rather than remaining a major part of the problem. When this happens, science may even fulfil its promise and eradicate poverty.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.