Idiot Savants

Some of Britain’s most eminent scientists are engaged in an economic war against the poor

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th February 1999.

When nineteen eminent Fellows of the Royal Society publish a joint statement, the world, quite rightly, takes note. We need, the biologists told us in a letter to The Telegraph this week, “to distinguish good science from bad science” and “bring good science into the centre of decision-making.” To which we all reply, quite so. But what, precisely, is good science?

What the professors meant, of course, is research subjected to the scrutiny of other scientists, or “peer review”. What they did not mean is science which improves the lot of humankind, rather than harming it. Indeed, according to Professor Lewis Wolpert, until recently chair of the Royal Society’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, science is “value free”: the pursuit of knowledge, whatever its nature, is neither moral nor immoral. This is precisely why we have learnt to mistrust it.

The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people but not the infrastructure, practice “good” science, subjected to peer review. They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the same approach appears to govern many of the nation’s biology labs.

For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are fighting on the wrong side.

In an article in the Guardian last week, another eminent Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor Christopher Leaver, argued that genetic engineering will save the world from starvation. His assessment would be hilarious, were we to forget how influential he is.

The distinguished professor correctly identified the problem: that the world’s population is growing and the amount of land on which food can be produced is shrinking. He then went on to enthuse about the tremendous potential for genetic engineering: the new crops it is producing mean that farmland can now be used to grow soap, plastics and high-tech animal feed. These crops, presumably, for this is the point of the research, will have a higher market value than food crops grown for humans. Farmers, in other words, will be encouraged to stop contributing to the world’s diminishing supplies of food and start, instead, to produce industrial chemicals.

Professor Leaver argued that genetically modified crops would help developing nations. He went on to boast that, thanks to genetic engineering, rape, a crop most effectively grown on vast factory farms in the northern hemisphere, can now produce plenty of lauric acid. The new technology threatens to destroy the market for coconut oil that sustains millions of peasant farmers across South East Asia and the South Pacific.

It’s hardly surprising that scientists, even the most illustrious, can no longer distinguish good from bad. British students are forced to specialise earlier than those of most other countries. Post-graduates discover that research money flows more easily for narrow science with precise technological outcomes than for visionary science with no immediate application.

Our laboratories, as a result, are crammed with idiot savants, people with a profound understanding of their own subject, but who know nothing whatever about the political and economic realities which govern its deployment. Christopher Leaver’s primitive Modernism, his childish faith in technology’s ability to solve political and economic problems, are shared by some of the best researchers in Britain. Unable to see beyond the sub-microscopic, they have, unwittingly, become mercenaries in the corporate war against the poor.

If the world’s impending food crisis is to be solved, it will be done through a fairer distribution of food and the means to grow it, soil conservation strategies and a switch away from the consumption of vast quantities of meat and milk. Genetically engineered plants offer the world very little of benefit that conventional breeding has not already produced. But they offer the corporations control over what, indeed whether, we eat. The people who develop them have got the science right, and everything else wrong.