Science in the face of an uncertain future

Science in the face of an uncertain future

At a time when certain right-wing and religious factions not to mention some major commercial players are leading an all-out attack on science, it may seem unwise to raise questions about the validity of scientific results. Positions are politicised and polarised and nuance has little place in public debate. Yet it is only with a nuanced approach that the situation can be understood sufficiently to take suitable measures.

We believe in science. Well, most people do. For many of us, science is a buoy to which we cling that saves us from drowning in a sea driven wild by lies and falsehoods. Against this turbulent backdrop, there is a growing wariness about scientific results. Part of that wariness is due to the manipulation of the media by people with vested interests challenged by scientific results. The tobacco industry, for example, oil companies or big Pharma. Then there are those for whom scientific theories undermine their beliefs and threaten their sectarian existence. Another cause for wariness is the extent to which science is seen to be influenced by those who finance it, those who validate it or by the methods, beliefs or world-views of scientists themselves. 

Then there’s politics. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear some politician clamouring that the policies they’re enacting are based on science. Science has become the shield behind which they advance their rickety policies. The haphazard response to the pandemic is a good example. The reality is that those choices, although they may be partly informed by science, are in fact a complex mix of opinion, personal interests, politics and ideology in which science is often little more than an alibi.

Much as I admire and encourage people like Greta Thunberg for their refreshing stand against the bullshit of those in power and their insistence that action can’t wait, it has to be said that unswerving reliance on science can be misguided. Science is not infallible. I suspect it is impossible to have such a thing as an infallible source of knowledge. For a start, not everything can be known, especially in the complex systems we live in. As for politicians, they put poorly-understood science to uses that are not necessarily in the interests of the people or the good of the wider world.

The dilemma becomes how to act in the face of uncertainty. The whole notion that we have little idea where we’re headed can be an immense source of anxiety. Especially if the choices we make turn out to be erroneous when mistakes could well lead to irreversible catastrophes. This was the subject of one of the early books of the Club of Rome in the 80s. They postulated that the world was becoming so complex and change was accelerating to an extent that we could no longer rely on trial and error as a way forward. The future was simply not predictable as an extrapolation of the past. We could not build on our prior knowledge or experience alone. 

Talking about all-knowing sources of knowledge is an invitation to god or his or her messengers to step forward, speak up and save us. The discourse of angels, mediums and gurus is highly seductive because it purports to offer certainty in uncertain times. As purveyors of absolute truth, what these people have to say cannot be challenged. Yet a difficulty emerges the moment you cross-reference these different certainties and discover that they contradict each other. Of course, you can always believe that your prophet is the only one to speak the truth. Such bubble-based logic has its own dangers, not the least of which leads to conflict and a failure to act. Ultimately the question is who do you believe. It’s a bit like knowing that all food has been tampered with and is not healthy, even what we grow in our own garden, and, as a result, not knowing what we dare eat for our next meal. How’s that for food for despair?

Clearly, a new understanding of the future and its relationship to the present and past is urgently needed along with a related rethink of leadership in the face of unpredictable emerging phenomena. See my Leadership, information gathering and the future – What if we’ve got it wrong? Such a deeper comprehension should not be fodder exclusively for the expert elite. It must be shared with the wider population so that it can underpin everyday understanding and action. We can expect those experts purveying ill-adapted linear solutions to rise up like so many banshees in a cemetery of failed ideas using their tried-and-tested knowledge to shout down any new approach. But the future, if there is to  be one for humanity, lies with those who can accept and successfully navigate the unpredictable.