Many people ask the same question of science. Since the 16th century science has given us electricity and anaesthetics, the internet and statins, the jumbo jet, vaccines and good anti-cancer drugs, the washing machine and the automobile. But what has it done for us lately?
In fact, for many people, what science has done for us lately hasn’t been dancin’ till one thought one would lose one’s breath. Rather, it has delivered emotionally-charged fights over issues such asvaccination, whether everyone should be taking statins, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified foods, wind farms and high-tension power lines.
Indeed, while most of us are happy with most of the products of science — not least our iPods, white goods and light bulbs — when it comes to some of the more contentious issues of science we’re not such a happy bunch.
You only have to look at comment threads on articles about these topics to see just such unhappiness and disgruntlement. In such discussions, science isn’t a benign tool for understanding the natural world, but a villain intent on unleashing industries and technologies we don’t want, or forcing us to give up our SUVs or eat our broccoli.
In this sort of world you can understand why, when considering the state of things, many scientists have taken on slightly exasperated air.
We’ve all heard lines about “global conspiracies of scientists.” Yet no one who has a passing understanding of how science works could imagine getting a global community to agree on anything remotely doubtful.
At times The Knowledge Wars feels like a Wikipedia binge, ranging widely and wildly through invention and events of the last 500 years (although, to be fair, that’s often how I spend my Saturday nights). And, perhaps more fundamentally, it sorely misses a nuanced take on the economic sociology and history underpinning that period. For example, although central to much of scientific and social history of the last half millennium, “capitalism” doesn’t make it to the index.
But the bigger lament I have after reading The Knowledge Wars is one perhaps I share with Doherty. Modern science began with the birth of Renaissance men; with individuals who understood that wise governance requires an embrace of statecraft as well as high art and the latest advances in science.
Yet now, the very idea of Renaissance men and women seems anathema, a foolish dream that could never happen in this crazy mixed up world we now live in. But is that really so foolish?