Jun 20 2011

Pulling us Back from the Brink – Science?

Published by under Talks

Pulling us Back from the Brink:


Economics? Science? Religion?






Gretchen: Science and Technology may be the end of the world as we know it


Chris: Science and Technology can deliver us



Gretchen: Science will be the end of the world as we know it

Where does the threat come from?  Well, science and technology have got us to where we are:


  • nuclear capability
  • GM foods
  • cars/use of oil/power generation CO2 and global warming
  • medicines to fight disease (lack of resistance; no drugs to fight new strains)
  • weapons of war
  • allergies/asthma/food allergies

Science will not pull us back from the brink:


1. Science is done by scientists
2. Scientists are human beings
3. Human beings are human (failings; blind to the effects of their work; driven by pride, power, prestige)

Science – creates and extends knowledge
  • scientists are not the principal users of this knowledge
  • principal users are business, industry, politicians – who are driven by money, the  wish to stay in power, the wish to break boundaries, stay ahead, win against the competition
  • these people don’t all have the broad understandings needed to make good decisions for the world (e.g. of science and economics and environmental and social issues and political constraints)
  • they are likely to have their own agendas and be quite one-eyed
  • they won’t have global concerns at heart e.g. there is not enough food to go around; water shortages; scarcity; health; the need for education for all

What to do?


‘Science’ comes from Scio – ‘I know’     but we need more than just knowledge:


‘With all thy knowledge get thee understanding and with all thy understanding get thee wisdom’


Chris: Science and Technology can deliver us


Science is a human enterprise which seeks to understand how everything works.  This understanding is achieved at multiple levels or complexity: sub-atomic physics, atomic physics, the chemistry of molecules, the biochemistry of complex molecules, the workings of life-forms from the simplest prions and viruses through unicellular organisms to multicellular creatures, whole ecosystems and the intricate relationships between organisms at all levels.  This study expands to embrace the psychology of individuals, kin groups, communities and species, blending into politics, sociology and religion.


At any given time, science can offer only partial insights and understandings which are unevenly distributed over its enormous field of study.   We build on what we have already, but have to make use of what we know at any particular time, conscious that partial knowledge may lead to mistaken actions.


Technology builds on current science to provide tools, tools which may be used for good or evil purposes.  Definitions of good and evil vary through space and time and across various levels of organisation.   Edward Tenner’s 1996 book “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” gives many examples of how using technology to make some things better end up making other things worse, often much worse.


Ultimately, science will give us the knowledge we require to live happily within the resources available to us on the planet, The trick is to survive in the interim by using technologies as wisely as we can.

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