Leading Article: The sorcerers and their willing apprentices: us

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The Independent Online
It was a picture to take the breathe away. A picture of the universe just after it was born, almost 15 billion years ago. It is impossible to look at it and not marvel at the power of science to take us back so close to the start of time. The picture - brown, yellow, white splodges of colour - measured tiny variations in temperature which are distant echoes of the fabled Big Bang. Creation reduced to a polaroid.

That picture, delivered by a hugely innovative group of physicists at Cambridge University, this week reminded us of science's capacity to take us to times and places it is difficult to imagine even in our wildest dreams. And yet we have also been shocked this week by how little science can do for us.

After days of deliberation, the top scientific brains in the country are no closer to telling us for sure what risk we might face from beef laced with BSE, how it might produce Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans and what we should do to make ourselves safe.

The inquiry into the causes of the new strain of CJD is no less fascinating and revealing about the role of science in our society than the pictures from the start of time. It is now thought that humans contract CJD from eating beef infected with BSE as a result of the actions of a destructive and enigmatic protein called a prion. The role and formation of proteins is one of the main unsolved mysteries of biology. This prion represents an entirely new form of infection, quite unlike a virus or a bacteria. Despite years of ground-breaking study in the face of hostility and derision from sceptical colleagues, the American originator of the theory still does not know quite how the prion works or how to combat it.

It's all very well giving us pictures from the beginning of time, but if science cannot help us to explain why and when a hamburger is unsafe, then we are bound to ask what use it is. Politicians and farmers are in the firing line this week. We are now so deferential to scientists that we have not called them to account. But call them to account we should.

The past week has revealed a good deal of schizophrenia in the attitudes of the urban meat- eating classes toward food, farmers and the countryside. Their mood has swung from complacency to hysteria and on to confusion. The pendulum has been lubricated by ignorance, prejudice and hypocrisy. But much the same could be said about our attitudes toward science. We are alternately in awe of it and deeply disillusioned by it, amazed one week by the scope of its vision and disappointed the next by the limits of its answers.

Science has become ever more confident in the past few years as the competition has faded. Social and economic theories of how society works and how we might shape its future - Communism, socialism, monetarism, Thatcherism - have all run out of steam. Science has forged ahead. Geneticists believe that they may be able to isolate the genetic causes of much of our behaviour, as well as the illnesses that afflict us. Ideas such as chaos theory are migrating out of their scientific nest to attempt to explain much else. Scientific thinkers such as Richard Dawkins - another new book out next week - and Stephen Hawking boldly wade into intellectual debates about time and human nature where others fear to tread.

This newly confident science is in danger of overstepping its mark. Science, the engine of the Enlightenment, unseated religion as the dominant power in the land. But that victory has set off a search for new sources of spiritual meaning and moral purpose, which is becoming ever more intense. It should be no surprise that the most scientific of ages is also prone to superstition, hysteria, moral panic. It should also be no surprise that we look to science itself to provide a sense of direction that properly can only come from morality and politics. That was the most depressing and telling message delivered by this week by the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, who appeared before us as no more than a spokesman for his scientific masters who met in closed, secret session to decide what should be done.

Nowhere is our schizophrenia more pronounced than in our attitudes toward drugs. Drugs mean hope of health, longer life, freedom from pain, a route to redemption in a secular society. This week, as we worried about our lack of knowledge about BSE, another group of scientists suggested that they may have made an important step toward treating Alzheimer's. Yet drugs, the new promised land of science, are also the great corrupters of our age. It is like having two concepts of heaven and hell, but using the same word for both.

What we should learn is that the best science is simple and small. The great Nobel prize-winning medical scientist Sir Peter Medawar once described science as the art of the soluble. The knack of being a good scientist is to ask questions for which it is possible to get an answer. Science progresses by a series of solved problems and it is only after decades of work that a visionary - Einstein, for instance - steps back and says look how far we have really come. When that happens, the vista can be awe-inspiring.

This swing between vision and myopia explains why we find science so powerful but so limited. It also explains why science is so poor at tackling questions posed for it by society. It is all very well for visionary scientists such as Professor Dawkins to deliver to us accounts of what makes us tick. It would be far more useful if science was more open to the questions we need it to answer. The BSE story is littered with outcast scientists who warned at an early stage of a link with CJD but were ostracised by the scientific establishment, an establishment now busily covering its tracks. The reason we can't answer now the big question about whether our beef might kill us is that the little questions were not tackled 10 years ago. They are grindingly boring - making extracts of brains and testing them to see if there is any foreign DNA (which would be bacteria or virus) compared with mutated protein. Science has failed us - we should not reward it by giving it yet more deference.

The beef panic stems from our lack of understanding of the modern countryside and the way that the cheap food which adorns our fridges is produced. But it also reflects how in thrall we are to science. We will have more panics of this kind in future if we do not adopt a more balanced, informed and realistic attitude toward both the rural and the scientific worlds.