New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
21 January 2016

Why science is failing to alter the future

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that being able to see the future is the same as being able to change it. At times the opposite is true.

By Michael Brooks

We still blind ourselves with science. Take cancer screening: people think the improved technology that allows us to spot lung, prostate or breast cancer earlier helps doctors save lives are saved. It doesn’t.

Mammography of 1,000 women will, on average, mean that four, not five, will die from breast cancer. But deaths from diseases other than breast cancer remain the same, or even rise slightly from 39 to 40. If that small rise is real, “women would simply be trading one type of death for another, at the cost of serious morbidity, anxiety and expense”, say the authors of an article published in the BMJ this month.

They argue that 600,000 women have been through the process and “there is no clear evidence of a reduction in overall mortality with mammography screening”. That’s why the Swiss government’s medical board has decided not to recommend mammograms: the downsides are not compensated for by the lives saved from breast cancer.

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that being able to see the future is the same as being able to change it. At times the opposite is true. Men diagnosed with prostate cancer are more likely to have a heart attack or commit suicide in the year after diagnosis. A lung cancer diagnosis increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and lung collapse.

It’s a lesson we need to apply to the latest source of wide-eyed scientific excitement: the Anthropocene. Geologists have collated evidence that suggests human beings are making a traceable impact on the geological record. At first glance, it’s remarkable. We are the first biological species whose activities have changed the very rock on which we stand. There’s a temptation to see this as evidence of a power and ingenuity that will ultimately make the world a better place. But being able to see the signature of our impact on Earth is no more to be celebrated than the discovery of a cancerous growth.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The most prominent mark is the signature of atomic weapons testing. In the middle of the 20th century, bomb testing created a spike in the level of radioactive particles in the atmosphere. These particles have subsequently been captured in rocks and ice. It would be nice to believe the signature is a spike – not a plateau – because we quickly realised the madness of stockpiling nuclear weapons. We have since learned to perform computer simulations that eliminate the need for much real-world testing, but weapons development, refurbishment and improvement goes on.

According to the Doomsday Clock, a measure of human prospects created by scientists concerned about threats to our existence, it is now just three minutes to midnight. And that was before North Korea tested its latest atomic weapon.

Another signature of the Anthropocene is the fly ash produced by burning fossil fuels. We already know this activity is constraining growing humanity’s ability to find places to live on the planet, and yet a glance at energy policies around the world tells us significant change is not on anyone’s immediate agenda.

Our screening of the Earth shows the signature of the two things most likely to wipe us out. The great lesson from the Anthropocene diagnosis is not that we are impressive, but that humanity’s condition could be terminal. The polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk once said our greatest responsibility was to be good ancestors. Sadly, that seems ambitious when it’s not clear we’re going to be ancestors at all. 

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie