Science is largely responsible for our progress and prosperity, and it is natural to look first to scientists for the answers to difficult questions. A refrain of the present government is that "we will work to the best scientific advice".
But science, almost by definition, is `reductionist' -- it looks at the simple constituents of complex things. Science can improve crop yields but not get the additional food to hungry mouths. Scientists have made no secret of their ignorance about the political effects of nuclear energy, and these effects have proved more important than the science itself. Governments like to claim scientific support partly because it allows them to make decisions within a cabal of experts, bureaucrats and corporate managers, hidden from the public behind obscure language. But recent events suggest that we should give more weight to intuition, imagination, common sense and morality.
Intuition might have prevented us turning cows into cannibals -- we would have avoided BSE, cattle would have suffered less, we would have saved £ 5 billion and we would have more friendly neighbours across the Channel.
Imagination could show that clear labelling of content and origin would enable epidemiologists to trace what is happening in a complex food system, and help people to make informed decisions on what they wish to buy.
Common sense would tell us that a centralised food system is dangerous -- without such a system eight litres of transformer oil would not have destroyed Belgium's entire food economy in 1999. Common sense surely tells us that field-testing crops that are genetically new to nature, on the basis of `let's see what happens' could be rather like releasing rats to see whether or not they spread bubonic plague. Common sense tells us that the cost of coal, oil, gas and water should reflect depletion and contribution to climate change, not just the cost of extraction.
Morality tells us not to keep chickens in such crowded conditions that they can't walk, live only six weeks and are then shackled upside down to a conveyor belt before being killed. If we had avoided this cruelty we would not now suffer from salmonella. Morality tells us to ban BST hormone treatment because it causes acute suffering to cows, let alone the suffering it might cause humans. Morality tells us not to participate in inhuman trading practices. Morality, eventually, told us to stop slavery.
When intuition, imagination, common sense or morality -- let alone science -- suggest that a new policy, product or procedure is suspect, it should be the responsibility of the promoter to prove that the objections are unfounded -- this is the `precautionary principle'. Our government and the World Trade Organisation act on the basis that no restriction must be allowed until conclusive evidence shows harm. By then the damage is done.
Some countries use citizen's juries, chosen at random, who are presented with some technical background and a host of expert and lay views as to whether a certain area of research is worth pursuing. After hearing the evidence, the citizen's jury comes to a verdict as to whether the research seems reasonable and fair by criteria that they themselves develop. Both scientists and political theorists have been surprised and impressed by the results.
Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges, published by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy or for further details visit www.littleearth.co.uk