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Science and the Retreat From Reason

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 20 June 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1915
  1. Stuart W G Derbyshire, assistant professor
  1. University of California Los Angeles, USA

    John Gillott, Manjit Kumar

    Monthly Review Press, £12.95, pp 248

    ISBN 0 85345 987 8

    Exaggerating the importance of science to modern industry, health care, transportation, communication, commerce, and so on would be difficult. This reliance on science, however, coexists with a widespread sense of unease regarding scientific progress.

    Although there is general support for genetic science as a means to tackle disease, for example, the enthusiasm is half hearted. Beyond a cure for disease is the nagging suspicion of “designer babies” and a Brave New World. Gillott and Kumar locate this ambivalent attitude to science as an aspect of “a broader rejection, by society, of the project of progress” that dates from the early days of the Enlightenment but has intensified markedly over the past 30 years or so.

    Improving life through the manipulation of nature was at the very heart of the Enlightenment project. A link between the advance of science and human happiness is possible because science increases the possibility for human action. The expectation, therefore, is of progress and science moving together. How did society become so hostile to this view?

    Part of the problem is the simplicity of the Enlightenment view itself. That we should link science and progress does not mean that we must. The 19th century French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, for example, was enthusiastic about science but emphatically rejected any orientation to the future and historical change.

    Comte's view was representative of general conservative unease after the French Revolution. The elite preferred to uncouple science and progress because promises of human equality and progress only highlighted the failure of modern society to live up to those promises. Optimism about science became just that, “an optimism about natural science in itself. The link between the advance of natural science and the advance of human happiness, the link between science and reason, science and progress, which had so characterized Enlightenment thought had, by the nineteenth century, been lost.”

    Flagging 19th century optimism about human social progress precipitated a separation of science and progress that has become entrenched during the 20th century. Recurrent economic decay and the exhaustion of radical social alternatives have shattered most people's optimism about humanity's future. The appropriation of science to fight wars, both hot and cold, has further reinforced a dim view of humanity. With science separated from social progress, and human action associated more with destruction than with creativity, the direction and purpose of science has become decidedly uncertain.

    Scientists are thrown onto the defensive searching for a reason to pursue science that does not involve human mastery over nature. This position is demoralising and inevitably tends towards a curtailing of science and the glorification of nature. Arguments about the potential ethical evils of science are successfully pitted against the actual advantages, preventing otherwise fruitful avenues of investigation. And the quest for a natural beauty within the mathematical systems of chaos and complexity threatens to send those branches of science in a mystical direction.


    Holmes Sellor's knife “like a retractable steel fingernail,” for mitral valvotomy from Raymond Hurt's The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery(Parthenon, £58, ISBN 1 85070 681 6), a wide ranging account from earliest times, set firmly in the context of medical practice as a whole.

    Science and the Retreat From Reason is provocative and will doubtless generate hostility in some readers. Disagreement with Gillott and Kumar, however, is no excuse to ignore their exceptional book.


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