This story in The Independent caught my eye over the weekend. For our transatlantic readers, I should point out that fracking is as unpopular in the UK as GM crops, firstly because we’re so highly populated that it is perceived to be likely to affect back gardens rather than distant wildernesses, which we do not possess. But there was also an unfortunate incident in which a pilot project caused a small earthquake, which has shaken the public confidence more than the bedrock itself.
As usual, the headline presents a misleading impression that our Chief Scientific Adviser is agin all such meddling with Nature, but the article itself is actually quite good, showing that he is merely advocating a judicious application of caution and adequate research.
What was interesting to me was the language used, both in the article and the Chief Scientific Adviser’s quotations.
“History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic — for instance involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general.”
Throughout the piece, in decribing the unforeseen disasters of our past and present, the word “innovation” crops up several times, as does the word “technology.” It’s clear that he is not primarily blaming greedy capitalists or politicians, but (in retrospect) insufficient research. But despite the Chief Adviser being officially Scientific, the word “science” doesn’t get a mention at all. Granted, fracking is primarily a technology rather than a scientific innovation, though it does rely on what the science of geology has discovered. But pretty well all the other examples on the list, Sir Walter Raleigh’s “legal high” excepted, were applications of cutting-edge chemistry, more applied science than mere technology.
Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but it sounds a bit like those criticisms of absolute monarchies in which the infallible king never makes mistakes, but is let down by his ministers or by traitors in our midst.
Inadequate science was never to blame for these problems, it seems, but the barely competent “technology” and the reckless assistant, “innovation”. That seems more likely than another alternative, which is that the word SCIENCE is just too sacred to be uttered, and “innovation” and “technology” are placeholders for the divine Name in the way that “Adonai” and “Heaven” were for 1st century Jews.
That may all be mere paranoia, though we’ve frequently discussed the role of science in our culture as the Infallible Truth, against which all else must be judged. So it might be interesting to keep an eye out for how the word “science” is used in other discussions of our current problems with global warming, holes in the ozone layer and so on. It’s frequently held up as the Saviour combating the vested interests of global corporations and ignorant denial, but how often do we see it being described, from within or without, as attempting to clear up its own past mistakes?