I'd rather trust a poet than a scientist
Who could forget the moment when, in the late 1980s, Martin Amis discovered astrophysics
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 22 June 1999
Then the others joined in. Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, A S Byatt, even, briefly and disastrously, John Updike. Perhaps, we thought, the problem was with fiction: the novel had lost confidence in itself and was seeking a bit of authority from the lab. Yet the ardour of these writers seemed quite genuine. "I get very excited about the nature of proteins - science is the most beautiful thing," Byatt announced a few months ago. "Revelations about the real world are mind-blowing... I substitute science for religion."
At this point, alarm bells began to ring. For not only was A S having her mind blown by the nature of proteins, but suddenly the rest of the population seemed to be following. Sales in magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American boomed. The bestseller lists were dominated by books by the geneticist or physicist of the moment.
The accepted wisdom is that there has never been a better time for science to become popular. When knowledge is increasing as never before, when the planet is keening for scientific solutions, the new enthusiasm is healthy.
But, if science, for the Byatt brigade, is now to be substituted for religion, does that explain why everyone is quite so in awe of its practitioners? Over the past few weeks, anyone who has expressed any degree of caution or scepticism about biotechnological advances has been pilloried for standing in the way of progress. Concerns about genetically modified crops being planted in Britain have been dismissed by the Prime Minister and his various flunkies and enforcers, as "media scares". It seems to have become assumed that modern-minded, patriotic Britons should put their trust in scientists.
Trust scientists? Quite frankly, I'd trust a poet before I trusted a scientist. Perhaps the ghost of ancient school prejudice is at work, but I regard those who specialise in a small and particular field as boffins - unreliable types when it comes to the world outside their laboratory. None of the scientific reasoning that has attended the recent debate about GM crops has done anything to convince me otherwise.
One argument, for example, is so flawed that surely even the densest non-scientist could see through it. The government's Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Robert May has repeatedly pointed out that an area one-and- a-half times the size of Britain has been under commercial GM cultivation for years. The argument sounds sensible until one realises that the area is in North America, where agriculture accounts for a relatively small proportion of the overall land mass. The millions of acres of land which cannot be farmed ensures a degree of environmental diversity. Here, on our little island where 75 per cent of the land is under agriculture, the landscape is utterly dependent on farming practices. To compare the two cases is, to put it politely, a sleight of hand.
It would be wrong to suggest that scientists simply suffer from the tunnel vision of the specialist. As the latest edition of Index on Censorship points out, research is compromised by its new dependence on funding from industry. When science is cross-pollinated with big business, awkward, unprofitable truth tends to be the loser.
Those who argue caution before the gene genie is let out of the bottle will doubtless continue to portrayed as backward-looking fanatics. In somewhat unscientific language, Sir Keith Mays has sneered at "the ayatollahs that run the Soil Association" describing organic farming as `the new theology".
It's that religious theme again. The question is, in which faith would you rather place your trust?
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