Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

The British Science Association has the mission of putting science at the heart of society. But is our future inevitably being directed by science? In her Presidential Address at this year’s British Science Festival, Professor Alice Roberts presented a bold and uncompromising picture of modern science from its origins in the 17th century to the crisis it faces today. Is it still the best way to understand reality? Alan Barker was in the audience.

BSA President Alice Roberts gave her address at this year's British Science Festival

The Presidential Address at this year’s British Science Festival was the first for some years to address the core question of science’s place in society. Professor Alice Roberts chose to tackle the issue head-on. Her speech, which she called “The Light of Understanding”, was unapologetically philosophical and intellectually courageous.

Professor Roberts began by taking us to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. In this unfinished story, published after his death in 1626, Bacon describes a research institution – the House of Salomon – dedicated to both pure and applied scientific enquiry. As the Father of the House explains: "The End of our foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."

That last phrase was taken by Sir Peter Medawar as the title of his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. Professor Roberts has read Medawar’s text closely and deeply. It informs many of the ideas in her own address.

(Medawar’s text is available in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice.)

Despite being written in 1659, some of the ideas in The New Atlantis ring true to this day (Picture: Wikimedia)

The New Atlantis is an imagined utopia, in which Bacon unashamedly promotes the idea of science as taking command of nature’s secrets to improve the human condition. (That word ‘Empire’ in the sentence just quoted is telling.) Bacon was struggling against a prevailing spirit of melancholy in the zeitgeist: a sense of crisis, engendered as much by war and pestilence as by religious intolerance and superstition.

Medawar saw a similar sense of emptiness in his own time, writing that "Once again there is a feeling of despondency and incompleteness, a sense of doubt about the adequacy of man, amounting in all to what a future historian might again describe as a failure of nerve."

“Does all this,” Professor Roberts asked us, “sound familiar?”

The word ‘anxiety’ became common in English around the time Bacon was writing. Early 17th century citizens had plenty to be anxious about, but technological advances, Professor Roberts suggested, may have fed their fears. The invention of clocks allowed for more accurate observation of nature, but they also implicitly chastised people for wasting time, especially when the prevailing belief was that this was, in John Donne’s words, “the last Age of the World.”

Medawar also wrote about feelings of hopelessness and despondency in his time (Picture: Wikimedia)

As the 17th century progressed, despite the upheavals of civil war, despondency seemed to give way to optimism. With Bacon and his intellectual descendants – in the Royal Society and elsewhere – a new feeling emerged, in Medawar’s words, “about the great things human beings might achieve through their own ingenuity and exertions.” By the 18th century, science had become part of a wider philosophy of rational humanism. “Can we arrest the progress of the inquiring mind?” asked William Godwin as that century drew to its close. “If we can,” he answered himself, “it must be by the most unmitigated despotism.”

In fact, suggested Professor Roberts, rationalism spawned its own despotism: reason came to be seen, not just as necessary, but as sufficient for progress.

Well: maybe. One could argue the ideologies which drove the French Revolution in 1789, and the apocalyptic horrors of scientific socialism and National Socialism in the 20th century, weren’t merely aberrations of reason. They resulted from an obsessive preference for systems over individual human lives. That preference remains powerful in human thinking. Absolutism – whether political, technological or corporate – might justify itself by hijacking science; and perhaps it’s enabled to do so because the pursuit of reason in the Enlightenment crucially separated questions of truth from questions of human value – and forbade science to investigate the latter. Perhaps this was the ‘fatal flaw’ in the Enlightenment project about which Professor Roberts wondered at one point in her address. Rational humanism always faces the danger of separating humanity from the rest of reality.

In 1969, Peter Medawar professed himself “continually surprised by the superficiality of the reasons which have led people to question” beliefs in the dignity of scientific learning. Well: he was speaking in the midst of a century in which science had been invoked to justify eugenics and genocide, to develop pesticides that were poisoning the soil, and to bring about the very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly surprising that, in his words, “we wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted.”

Arguably, obsessive preference for systems over individual human lives led to the murderous ideology of the French Revolution (Picture: Wikimedia)

Alice Roberts, in 2019, found it difficult to echo Medawar’s bullish optimism. It’s surely true that non-scientists still routinely ignore the benefits of science. But our circumstances now aren’t those of Bacon in the 1620s. We’re still anxious, but now science is giving us more and more things to be anxious about.

Our world is changing more quickly than Bacon could possibly have imagined, and our understanding of it is changing almost as fast. Much of the information that science is generating about reality is now well beyond the comprehension of non-scientists – or even scientists in different disciplines. We’re beginning to acknowledge, in E O Wilson’s words, that “reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.” We’re now also beginning to see that scientific truth is only ever provisional; that scientists change their minds; that the light of understanding sometimes shines differently, depending on who’s paying for the light to be switched on.

“We prefer certainty to uncertainty,” Professor Roberts went on; but science refuses to deal in certainty. Instead, it deals in probabilities, hypotheses, and doubts.

Actually, I think our craving for certainty masks a much deeper craving for meaning – and too many scientists still refuse to address that need in their non-scientific audiences. They remain caught in the fatal Enlightenment schism between truth and value. And so, if we have no religious faith, we turn elsewhere for meaning. We pay quacks to tell us what’s wrong with us; we join cults; we vote for politicians who promise easy solutions to intractable problems.

Does there need to be a new working relationship between science and other modes of knowing?

And, we too, face a challenge qualitatively different from the challenges Peter Medawar was facing fifty years ago. “The deterioration of the environment produced by technology,” he said, “is a technological problem for which technology has found, is finding, and will continue to find solutions.”  The problem we now understand we’re facing, as Professor Roberts reminded us, is more than technological. “Our home is under threat,” she said, “and we are the ones threatening it.” She doubted that we could simply “chase the technological fix”, or that we can “separate ourselves conceptually from the rest of the natural world.”

We need to awake from the Baconian dream of exploiting nature for our own benefit.

And here we reached the point of maximum perplexity. Professor Roberts displayed bravery in refusing to shirk it. I think that she recognized, at the end of her address, the need to establish a new working relationship between science and other modes of knowing. But what is that relationship to be? She appealed to E O Wilson’s notion of consilience: the idea of interdisciplinary research between different spheres of enquiry and learning, to enhance understanding more generally. Imagination and creativity, she acknowledged, are common and fundamental to both sciences and arts. Nonetheless, “the central idea of consilience,” she went on, “is that all tangible phenomena, from … the movement of planets to the way that we interact socially, are discoverable and understandable; they are material processes, involving cause and effect, and they are reducible to elements that we can comprehend.”

So, then – and Professor Roberts made this claim twice – the scientific method, born out of Bacon, and celebrated by Medawar, remains “our most powerful means of understanding reality.” For all this talk of consilience, science remains, it seems, primary to other modes of understanding. And yet, as she herself acknowledged, “science alone is not wisdom.” Indeed not: after all, are not the ways in which we understand reality themselves part of reality?

Where, then, do we turn for wisdom?

Alan Barker is a writer, trainer and coach specialising in communication skills. He has been working with the British Science Association since 2015. Alan’s webinar, Storytelling for Scientists, is on the 3M YouTube channel.

Professor Alice Roberts is the President of the British Science Association. She is a medical doctor and Professor of Public Engagement with Science at the University of Birmingham. She has also written and presented several television series including BBC's Horizon, and written many popular science books, including the Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted The Making of Us.