Early specialisation prevents scientists from understanding the consequences of their work
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th February 2000
If Freeman Dyson were not one of the world’s most prominent physicists, with a professorship at Princeton University, he would be dismissed as a lunatic. But we have to take his ideas seriously. They are based not on wishful thinking, but on a visionary appreciation of the possible. So when he suggested last week that Mars could be made habitable within the next 50 years by planting genetically engineered trees, we should withhold our mockery. He may, unfortunately, be right.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor Dyson expanded upon a theme he has been exploring for decades: creating habitable conditions on other planets, he believes, will both facilitate space tourism and encourage the export of “surplus populations”, to protect the earth from ecological disaster. His plans threaten to precipitate the very catastrophes he wants to avoid.
Space tourism, which is now being actively developed, will be, at least in the early stages, the most fuel-hungry of all human activities, massively increasing our expenditure of energy. To make other planets accessible, in other words, we must first lay waste to our own. Were space colonisation to become viable, moreover, the rich and powerful would no longer have to suffer the consequences of their own actions: nothing could be better calculated to diminish their willingness to help solve our problems than the possibility of escaping them. The architects of heaven always end up designing a hell.
If Professor Dyson, who could fairly be described as a genius, sometimes cannot grasp the consequences of his own techno-utopianism, then what hope is there for other researchers? Scientists suffer perhaps more acutely than any others from the curse of the 21st Century: complexity. Every discipline has been sub-divided by microtome. To prosper, they must narrow the scope of their enquiries to the extent that even people in related areas have no idea what they’re talking about. Even so, the proliferation of papers means that some fields, however small, have become almost impossible to master. It is hardly surprising that so many researchers fail to see that no scientific issue is only a scientific issue.
Many nuclear physicists, for example, still insist that nuclear power is safe. In a world governed only by science, they would be correct. But the world is run by people, not principles, and no mathematical equation, however elegant, can explain how the management of nuclear installations can be prevented from taking shortcuts, when the shortcut is many times cheaper than the safe procedure. Nor can science tell us how we could achieve the 10,000 years of political and economic stability required to ensure that nuclear waste is managed safely, when no honest politician can promise ten. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous, not because it can’t be made safe, but because it won’t be made safe.
Some of the world’s most eminent biologists insist that genetically modified crops are “low-risk”. When assessing the immediate food safety consequences of shifting DNA, they may be right, but the risks lie elsewhere: in the elevated pesticide residues in herbicide-resistant crops, in the ability they grant to farmers to eliminate almost all the remaining wildlife from their fields, in the seizure of the food chain by multinational companies. GM farming can be pronounced “low-risk” only if you take the narrowest, technological view of what the risk entails. Environmental issues are always multi-factorial. The more specialised our researchers become, the less likely they are to understand them.
Their inability to perceive the wider consequences of their work has led some scientists to treat the anxious public with contempt. When Professor Janet Bainbridge, chair of the government’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, was asked whether we should be able to choose between GM and non-GM food, she observed, “most people do not even know what a gene is. Sometimes my young son wants to cross the road when it’s dangerous – sometimes you have to tell people what’s best for them.”
Offensive and patronising as such statements are, I find it hard wholly to blame the authors. Early specialisation has reduced many of our scientific debates to a dialogue of the deaf. Just as science graduates can’t understand the concerns of the laity, the laity can’t understand the scientists. We surely cannot go on like this. It seems to me essential that, while otherwise left to pursue their specialisations, science students be obliged to take modules in humanities, while humanities students be compelled to take modules in basic science.
The alternative is a nation of segregated androids. When all of us are living on different social planets, no one will be able to understand why the earth is falling apart.