Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee
Faith in Science

Reproduced from the RT Logo


What hope have we left, now religion is all but dead and socialism turned to ashes? (Yes, I know there are still plenty of believers left, but across the broad swathe of society they are the exception, not the rule.) Yet there is one belief that most of us still share just. Perhaps some of us cling to it with ever-greater fervour, for lack of anything else. It is a belief in man's infinite ingenuity, our forward progress, our capacity in the end to overcome any obstacle, to solve any problem and rescue ourselves at the eleventh hour. In other words,we place ultimate faith in science as our saviour.

This week,Horizon (Monday BBC2) celebrates its 30th anniversary with a philosophical look back at the expectations, beliefs, achievements and failures of science. In the many programmes since 1964, the world has changed much, but not often in the ways predicted by the scientists and futurologists featured at the time. Marshall McLuhan was right about the communications revolution and the global village, but he may have been far too optimistic about how much good it would do for people. His idea that every denizen of the Third World sitting under a tree watching TV would thus be empowered to participate in the world they see was a step too far.

As a handful of media moguls dominate the world's airwaves, there is little sign yet of interaction on the part of the passive receivers, or an increased sense of belonging to the rest of the world. In the year that Horizon hit the airwaves, Harold Wilson won an election promising that the white heat of technology would provide every answer. Herman Kahn declared that 90 per cent of the world would be as rich as the Americans before long. Little sign yet of that. Richard Nixon proclaimed cancer would be cured in ten years. Not yet.

In the 60s, they said energy would become too cheap to be worth metering. They planned and built rational cities Le Corbusier's "shining cities in the sky". Now they are knocking them down as fast as they can afford. When man landed on the moon there seemed nothing beyond his reach. By the 70s, many of the dreams and much of the trust in science came to a juddering halt The Vietnam war showed a new generation two things: first, that science delivered horrifying napalm, Agent Orange defoliants and a threat of nuclear holocaust. Second, it didn't work, and the black pyjama-ed Viet Cong on their bicycles were beating Western technology.

Passionate, if wrong- headed, conviction was stronger even than chemical weaponry. Science was not, after all, invincible. This anniversary programme tries to lay to rest the wearisome arguments about science versus culture, with a plea for people to understand there is no difference between the two. We are, we live, we breathe the science of our age, just as we wear its fashions, read its books and go to its movies. Even if most people don't have the scientific training to understand Heisenberg' s Uncertainty Principle or Einstein's Theory of Relativity , nor to imagine what a black hole IS, in a curious way the style of thought, the essence of the idea filters down and changes us.

To prove it's true, a new popular science series, Big Bang, starts on Wednesday (Radio 4),part of the push for more science programmes. That science is rooted in culture, and vice versa, becomes obvious when viewing some Horizons of yesteryear and wincing at some of their attitudes. Much airtime is given to solving the problems of the developing world, with an arrogant belief in our own rationality and the ignorance of the primitives.

Thousands of experts in millions of villages will tell women that their mother was a bad mother, that their father was a bad father and the old ways were bad ways," it thundered away in the 60s, not just imperialistic, but so sublimely confident in Western solutions to everything. As experts swing from panic about a new ice age to alarm at global warming; as we watch the two warring groups of population experts slug it out about whether or not there will be an explosion of mouths we cannot feed, we should, perhaps, have less blind faith in scientists.

Yet we live in a world where we are more and more dependent on and therefore deferential towards "experts" of every kind. Democratic participation in decision-making becomes harder and harder as expert knowledge is held in just a few hands and decisions turn on things most people can no longer understand. The brave new world may increasingly be one we observe and live, but no longer control, if we ever did.


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Email:Radio Times  21 - 27 May 1994 File Info: Created 2/8/2000 Updated 10/7/2001 Page Address: http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/toynbee5.html