Science, Technology and the Quality of Life

2019-03-22T13:40:55+00:0021/05/2018|

By Dr Alexander King

The Author

Alexander King CMG, CBE, DSc was born 1909 in Glasgow. He read science at the universities of London and Munich, later becoming a Senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry at Imperial College, London. In World War II he was a science adviser to the Minister of Production and later head of The British Central Scientific Office and Councillor at the British Embassy in Washington. After the War he was head of the Central Scientific Secretariat and Science Adviser to the Lord President, during the Atlee Administration. Later he became Director of the European Productivity Agency during the reconstruction. Then, until his retirement in 1974, he was Director General for Science, Technology and Education at the OECD in Paris. He co-founded the Club of Rome in 1968, to which he invited Idries Shah as one of the first distinguished members. The two became close friends, and King would often visit the Institute for Cultural Research at Langton House, where Shah lived. King later became President Emeritus after 10 years of travel worldwide, lecturing, advising and negotiating. He was awarded the Erasmus Prize for cultural services to Europe. This monograph is based on a lecture given under the aegis of the Institute for Cultural Research in 1971.

Introduction

Alexander’s King’s original monograph ends with thoughts on the population crisis which, in the 1970s, was widely expected. (The grim predictions made in the late 1960s by MIT modellers about problems arising from over-population have mostly proved wrong; today, climate change has become more of a general concern.) But despite being slightly off the mark with population predictions, King was spot on in his analysis of the way public bodies approach problems.

Indeed, he astutely points out that there is never one problem; there is, rather, an interconnected network of problems, which he calls the ‘problematique’.

He is also very insightful and concise in his interpretation of just what it is in science and technology we don’t like – not the science or technology per se, but the fact that we haven’t mastered them. Right now it’s the other way around…

Finally, his look at the way DDT was used has much resonance today. Are we in danger of making similar mistakes with the highly efficient herbicides that kill the habitat of insects that are so necessary to the bird population?

Science, Technology and the Quality of Life

One of ICR’s objectives is to encourage multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary thought. It seemed to me, therefore, that among the many other topics which appear in the Institute’s list of lectures, it would be useful to have a talk about the present state of science in the world.

What I shall be discussing tonight is essentially inter-disciplinary; my basic theme is the need to regain the unity of science and of knowledge in order to apply them coherently to the understanding of our world and also to reject a purely linear type of thinking.

I have chosen the title rather carefully – three linked subjects – science, technology and the quality of life. All three are conceptually rather ambiguous topics, and are interpreted in very different ways by different people. I want to talk first of all about each one of them separately, not in a specifically semantic sense but rather more generally.

Science

It is rather difficult for one who has worked elsewhere to talk about science to an audience in England or America, because the English speaking countries are ridden with the Anglo-Saxon heresy that science is confined to subjects such as chemistry, physics, engineering and so on, whereas in nearly all other countries in the world – in the Latin countries certainly, in the Soviet Union, in China, in Japan, the term science is equivalent to the word knowledge, connaissance, Nauk, Wissenschaft.

Hence attitudes to science are very different in different countries. One has heard a good deal here in the last twenty years of the so-called two cultures promulgated by C.P. Snow and about the difficulties of the relations between the sciences (in the English sense) and the humanities.

Other people look at it a little differently; for instance, Margaret Meade, the anthropologist, regards C.P. Snow’s concern with the separation of the two cultures as a mere matter concerning the elite of a small part of the English-speaking world.

Consequently, I want you tonight to regard science in the broader sense, not necessarily including the whole spectrum of the humanities and speculative thought, but essentially as an orderly and systematic approach to man’s knowledge of the physical laws, of himself, his environment, and his society.

A cerebral approach

This approach is generally made, according to the present scientific method, by investigation, by probing, by experiment, by putting forward hypotheses and trying to test them. This of course is basically a cerebral approach; it is basically mental.

However, it is by no means entirely so and not nearly as mental I think as it purports to be or as scientists generally imagine it to be. Most really great scientific discoveries are, I think, to a very large extent intuitive, but based on an enormous extent of accumulated knowledge and rational experience.

There are, of course, innumerable pedestrian scientists, as there are pedestrian people in other fields, who have very little intuitive or creative contribution to make. But from my experience in the natural sciences, the creative process in research is not all that different from the creative process, shall we say, in music or in writing poetry. Once the flash of creativity has been achieved, there is generally a post facto rationalisation.

The young and the old

In most important scientific discoveries, probing into the unknown, three or four initial approaches or hypotheses may present themselves. Each of these may lead to a host of alternatives at the next step and the whole process rapidly fans out.

In the creative process an intuitive jump may suggest the point of break-through without a laborious explanation of the innumerable alternatives. Of course, once the jump has been made to a new discovery, then it is quite possible and quite legitimate, and certainly very traditional, to work back from the discovery and indicate the whole thing as a rational process.

It is also true, particularly in mathematical sciences, that most great discoveries – the creative phase of a man’s work – come rather early in his career; creative discovery is a young man’s job, in fact fundamental scientific research, undertaken in the university is to a very large extent successful because it provides a symbiosis of the experience of a good professor who has possibly passed his most creative phase, with the new, intuitive and creative attitude of whole cohorts of younger research people.

These younger, less experienced, workers come up with ideas, which although often naive are creatively suggestive; they cross-fertilise with the experience and information of the older professor and lead to completely new things, thus maintaining a vitality which may persist into the old age of a first-class professor.

The system

In the nature of things and as the sciences are at present classified and institutionalised, we are still following the system which was established by the foremost German scientists of the 19th century, at the time of Liebig and Bunsen.

At that time the natural sciences were developing separately and could be nicely classified into little boxes marked ‘chemistry’, ‘physics’, ‘geology’, and so on. This was very convenient, very effective, and has worked well until fairly recently.

In the social sciences, which developed later, classification is much less clear. Very often classification is a matter of mere convenience and orientation, and varies from country to country.

The differences between sociology, social anthropology and social psychology, for instance, are to some extent different ways of looking at particular phenomena, and can all too easily lead to a rabid sectarianism.

A new stage

It seems to us now, however, that the growth of the sciences, particularly the natural sciences, has reached a stage when they can no longer be looked at separately.

First of all, inter-face sciences began to develop between subjects such as chemistry and biology, for example, biochemistry, and later on, more complicated linkages appeared in the form of subjects such as molecular biology.

As developments take place, these new subjects themselves interact with one another, in a kind of dynamic development of knowledge.

Where subjects of concern and interest of the moment are, if you like, temporary subjects, it is hardly necessary even to give them a name or regiment them into a class; for they themselves, as the frontiers of knowledge are pushed back, will tend to react with other such subjects.

Multi-discipline

I am at the moment associated with an attempt to look at one or two particularly difficult multi-disciplinary fields in science, to see how they can be cultivated. We are considering, for example, the topic of brain and behaviour, a subject where the participating disciplines include subjects such as bio-chemistry, neurology, neuro-physiology, molecular biology, psychology, psychiatry and so on.

To get people of such disciplines working together is enormously difficult, and probably enormously important, for some of these new subjects.

But again, this field will advance; its name will change, its emphasis will change. I put it to you therefore that in the advancement of knowledge we require a much more kinetic kind of approach to the development of science, rather than the static, classified, approach of the past, which has led to compartmentalisation, to extreme specialisation and to a retreat from the realities of life in some cases.

The unity

Certainly it has made it difficult to perceive the connections and appreciate the unity of knowledge, the unity of all existence in which Knowledge has a place.

The same phenomenon is now beginning to appear more and more with the subjects to which science and technology are applied. Nearly all the problems facing society today cannot be attacked by single disciplines.

They have economic, social, technical, natural science and social science facets, and their approach by one of these alone seldom leads to valid solutions.

The present static classifications of the sciences which I have described, and the unidisciplinary and linear way of attacking problems is reflected also in our institutions – university faculties and government departments which have become essentially obsolete.

Technological impact

Now as to technology: technology has become increasingly in the last few years a dirty word. It is the agency through which knowledge is productively applied, and it is generally thought of in terms of engineering, although the new so-called ‘software’ technologies are appearing; first in computers and now in many other fields.

Of course technology is a very old subject; in a sense we are all children of technology.

In the early days of man, the discovery of fire and its use, the lever, the wheel, the simple metallurgical arts, agriculture, all these were technological advances; very necessary for lifting man from his initial state of having to spend all his time in seeking shelter and food.

The rise from the subsistence level required, and was made possible by, these simple technologies which developed very slowly and gradually as centuries went by.

Misuse

The present revulsion against technology to my mind is not really against technology as such but against the misuse of technology; it arises from our complete lack of mastery over technology, and over so-called technological progress.

The condemnation of technology is mainly due to its abuse and mis-management rather than its inherent nature, and is very often concerned with institutions which have been built up or which have appeared in order to develop and exploit technology, the kind of thing that Eisenhower talked about as the military industrial complex, etc.

Life

The third topic: quality of life. This again is very ambiguous, and means different things to different people. At an early stage in man’s development, when he is subsisting at a low level, the only really valid form of quality seems to be economic; he has to produce some resources, some accumulation of capital, otherwise he is living like the cow, eating grass all the time in order to live, without any leisure, possibility of developing, and so forth.

As wealth accumulates, questions come in, particularly in relation to technology, as to whether the material goals of society are sufficient.

At present there is a general feeling that quality is slipping away, is leaking from life, and that we do not know what value is any more.

Material values

Obviously, one’s concept of the quality of life depends entirely on the individual’s ideas and beliefs in relation to the value system on which his life, his society, operates.

At present these values, at any rate in a mass sense, are mainly material. Science and technology should – and to a large extent do – respond to the value system of society, and up till now they have responded, as one would expect, to value systems which were essentially material.

Now the connection between these three topics – science, technology, the quality of life – one might call briefly science policy, if that is interpreted widely enough to mean the mastery of technical progress, or still more widely to include the question as to how society and the individual can make the maximum use of knowledge.

Of course this is extremely difficult to achieve, even in the most simple materialistic sense.

Governments concerned with science policy, with the attempt to master technology for national aims, find it very difficult to look at the various individual parts of the question, and to bring them together.

As I said once in a speech made at Dallas, Texas, science policy is well nigh impossible, owing to the naïveté of the natural scientists, the arrogance of the economists, the bloodymindedness of the bureaucrats and the ignorance of the politicians.

And all these different qualities coincide and reinforce one another, in earnest confusion; the conjunction of separate unidisciplinary approaches does not in itself provide for a coherent multidisciplinarity.

Natural sciences

Now let me say a word or two about the rise of the natural sciences, which has been so spectacular in the last few decades.

The amount of resources used for research and development has grown exponentially for about 200 years. For a long time the rate at which scientific activity increased was very slow, but over the last three or four decades it has become extremely rapid, so much so that in a country such as the United States the expenditure on research and development now amounts to about 3.5% of the gross national product.

In these circumstances science and technology can no longer be cultivated for their own sakes. The money which they demand has been forthcoming from the tax payer because research and development are supposed to contribute to the aims of the society which supports them.

Three aims

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there have in fact been only three aims substantially, though there have been many sub-aims. These three aims have been defence, national prestige, and material economic advantage.

And it was not until 1969 that the economic objectives of science dominated over the purely military defence objectives.

There has of course also been some money spent on objectives such as medical research and so on, but the amounts were relatively trivial.

Fourteen objectives

Recent statistics brought out in Paris have tried to rate the importance of some fourteen objectives by reference to recent expenditure on relevant scientific research; the objectives include defence, space, agriculture, industry, nuclear energy, transportation, health, urbanism, environment, and so on.

It may interest you to know the relative figures for the efforts of the main countries in the world undertaking scientific research.

In terms of the importance of particular objectives within the gross domestic product, i.e., within the national expenditure, industry comes out very high with a comparative figure of 57; agriculture is 9; for the social and service sectors, including health, transportation, education, urban renewal, environment, and so on, the figure is between 0.1 and 0.2.

Up till the present, therefore, in the wisdom of governments, the effort devoted to the using of new knowledge for social objectives in contrast to economic objectives, and still more to defence objectives, has been quite trivial.

The downside

Now I have already hinted at the existence and the importance in all these fields of the bad side effects which have appeared progressively in society in the last few decades.

I do not want to describe these in detail, for you know them as well as I do. All the pollution effects, the crowded and unpleasant nature of life in the cities, the sterility of the many faceless suburbs, loss of satisfaction in work, the increasing alienation of individuals from society, the difficulties of increasing crime, drug-taking, delinquency, and all kinds of things which make life perhaps not what many people would want it to be, particularly the kind of facelessness and anonymity, the lack of purpose which this technologically dominated life seems to produce.

I want to talk about the nature of these problems in a general way for a little, because I think they are very important and very little understood.

The problematique

It is all too easy for politicians to take up a subject, such as pollution; it is a nice, popular evil which everyone can fight and which does not really hit back; even industry can be made to do something about it.

But to tackle the totality of this cluster of problems, is something which is at the moment almost beyond the wisdom, if such there be, of political leaders and the people who advise them. This mass of problems or ‘the problematique’ as it is called, seems to me to have three main causes.

The first cause is increase in population, essentially in world population, and its ever greater accumulation in the cities. One has it in western Europe, of course, but you see exactly the same thing in the less developed parts of the world, in Calcutta, in Dar-es-Salaam, in Mexico City, in the ‘bidonvilles’ of Rio de Janeiro.

The second cause of the problematique is the level of affluence. Many new problems appear when people have achieved a level of material prosperity and seem to be released from the constraint of survival of the fittest in its simplest material sense, when they are no longer forced to earn their daily bread, as they did in the past.

A further main cause of course, connected with the other two, is the great, unmanaged upsurge of technology which has been the agent for producing affluence and for concentrating population in cities, and even for providing better food, better nutrition and medical care, and hence encouraging population increase.

These three causes are of course completely interactive and inextricable.

Common features

The problematique, or complex of problems I have mentioned again appear to have three features in common.

The first feature is that they are global and they seem to appear in any kind of society at a certain level of development irrespective of the social or political system.

One has the pollution problems just as much in some parts of the Soviet Union as in capitalist societies – the disappearance of caviar from the Moscow shops, for example, is directly due to the pollution of the Caspian Sea and its falling level, and can hardly be ascribed to capitalism.

So there seems then to be a phenomenon of globality in these problems.

The second feature is, as I have already hinted, that they are extremely complex and multi-variant. They have economic, social, political, technological, psychological aspects which are difficult to disentangle.

Third, they are enormously interactive. The cluster of inter-related, interacting, inseparable problems appear to be merely symptoms on the surface of society, symptoms of a deep and disseminated malaise.

If each is attacked separately the symptom as such may be removed but, in the absence of diagnosis of the nature of the disease, there will appear in other parts of the same system further difficulties which will probably not be recognised as being caused by the changes involved in removing the first symptom.

I will now give you a brief illustration, slightly caricatured, of the interactions within the system.

DDT

The problem was in connection with the insecticide DDT, with which I was very closely associated during the War, when it seemed to us to be a miraculously beneficent discovery.

We were told afterwards that in the South-East Asian campaign, DDT had prevented three-quarters of a million casualties. There are certainly several million people alive today who would not be alive if DDT had not existed.

At the same time, DDT has not yet killed a single person. Yet it is one of those things which is universally attacked as an evil, and probably quite rightly; because long term effects are not yet well understood. We do not know to what extent it will be bio-degraded in the earth, how much will appear in the seas, how much will accumulate, whether it will exterminate all fish.

I know it appears in the eggs of penguins in Antarctica already. It is threatening the existence of the bald-headed eagle, which is regarded as very important, although nature has probably done away with many thousands of species for every one done away with by man.

The DDT problem illustrates the type of interaction and the kind of quandary one is in.

Good or bad?

One may ask, first of all, was it a good or a bad thing that all these people are alive today who would not have been alive as a result of malaria and many other things, had DDT not existed?

They are mainly in the under-developed parts of the world. I would not dare to answer that question though some people might.

Then again, if we in our wisdom feel that a substance like DDT should be banned and its manufacture prohibited in the advanced parts of the world, have we the right, unless we can provide effective substitutes which are harmless, deprive countries like, say, Tanzania with its tse-tse fly and malaria problems, which are basic to its development, of the use of this material?

We don’t know. To do so would seem just an arbitrary act of neocolonialism, forbidding the use by poor societies of something which the rich societies can now afford to do without.

The ‘Green Revolution’

Ethically it is extremely difficult to answer any of these questions. Another example is the so-called Green Revolution. We know very well that the invention of hybrid maize, rice and other crops has made it possible to grow very much more food on the earth, and in many countries food production for starving multitudes is an absolute must. The decision to do so will be made by the Minister of Agriculture, and supported by the aid agencies of the United Nations and all such bodies.

But have we looked enough at the side effects? First of all, because of the intensive use of chemical fertilisers which the green revolution necessitates, it is very likely that all surface water will become polluted within six years in areas where they are used, for example, in India.

Then again, what are the social effects? The intensive growth of many of these new crops as food products requires three crops a year. This cannot be achieved by peasant agriculture; it requires mechanisation. This means hundreds of thousands of people flowing into cities like Calcutta, in addition to those who are already doing so today.

The provision of employment in most poor countries is also a main national objective, just as is the production of food. The achievement of one aim, solving one problem, tends to aggravate another.

Los Angeles

Let us take a case in a developed country: the example of a city such as Los Angeles, where on a huge area in a very fertile plain, a great sprawling city grew. It happened to be near sources of petroleum, it was an ideal place for the development of the automobile.

Gradually over the huge area, there were more and more two- and three- car families. Gradually, because of the number of people with cars, public transport began to decay and almost to disappear. This entailed of course enormous public expenditure on super highways, on underpasses and all the rest of it, so less and less money was available for public transport.

All this car population was encouraged by the city fathers and led to further road building, which was necessary if the cars were to circulate, and of course to be sold.

This meant in turn more pollution, more smog. But it also meant that the disappearance of public transport affected the under-privileged part of the population, the Negroes, and the poor; and not only these but also the young and the old, particularly the very young and the very old.

The riots at Watts two or three years ago in the United States, took place actually after the Federal Government had provided a considerable number of jobs which were available to Negro workers, but there was no way of them getting to the jobs, to their workplace, from where they lived because there was no transport.

It was not thought out as a whole, everything was dealt with separately.

In this great ‘problematique’ we barely distinguish between symptoms and disease, and in attacking the problems, our governmental structures and policies are almost impotent, the structures and policies being in nearly all cases vertical – Ministries of Health, Ministries of Agriculture, Ministries of this, that and the other; the problems are all horizontal.