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Benefits forgot

Ted Nield

Little bites so nigh, says Ted Nield, as the oft-forgot favours of science

"Scientific and material advancement have not made us happier or better people, and wasn't that meant to be the deal?" Jeanette Winterson

In her regular Books column in The Times (November 24) the novelist and social commentator Ms Winterson asks whether society today has not lost its way because there are no more ideas worth suffering for – and nobody to suffer for them. In exploring this idea, she invokes Prometheus, the Titan whom Zeus - you will recall, as a punishment for bringing fire to mortals – is condemned to be chained to a rock and have his liver ripped out by an eagle every morning. Painful – but nevertheless (and especially in the Aeschylus telling) an affirmation of his heroic triumph on behalf of man.

Ms Winterson of course first claimed our attention with her searing semi-autobiographical novel Oranges are not the only fruit, wherein suffering was much in evidence. But she is much more than a purveyor of top-end chick-lit. She has become noted for hand-wringing over the state of society and our quality of life. However – and despite frequent nods in her writing to the importance of science – I fear she has trapped herself into making the wrong point, one she is not alone in making, and yet one which misunderstands and underappreciates the role of science. As we enter the UN International Year of Planet Earth, which is dedicated to ensuring the better usse of our geoscientific knowledge to improve people's lives, it is time to speak out about this.

Like many philosophical schools, "Postmodernism" is not an easy thing to define; but one of its characteristics is the belief that the scientific and technological revolution ( so much part of 20th Century Modernism) has been reduced to disillusion and despair, along with other ideas like progress, abstract art, atonal music, socialism, and so on.

Unfortunately, and their attempts to prove otherwise have led exponents of "PoMo" to make royal asses of themselves more than once) science doesn’t fit the post-modern plan because it is, of course, inherently "progressive". It is also by far the most active and productive area of human intellectual endeavour that shows no sign of running out of steam. Scientists maintain their positive outlook. They go on making people’s lives easier, safer, more productive. They may complain about funding - but never lose their sense of direction.

Sadly, this is not the case in other areas of intellectual life. The central 20th Century political agenda – most vividly embodied in socialist movements and their various creeds – has indeed fallen apart. Art, philosophy and politics often seem to lack conviction and direction. It is easy to see why cultural anxiety (of the sort frequently bemoaned by Ms Winterson) is rife in artistic circles, when the best philosophers of the day seem content to see their ideas run away into the meaningless twaddle of postmodernist relativism. One senses among those in the arts a prevailing frustration that they have been born into a dull time, when what they do is no longer on everyone's lips – and when Modern Art has ceased to rebel, but instead has embraced commercialism like never before.

Science on the other hand, marches on, its tail up, its eyes bright, its sense of principle and purpose undimmed. It is not science's fault that people don't feel "happy". Science never set out to make us “happy” or “better” - the sum total of human happiness or goodness is a universal constant. What science continues to do is free us from want - to the extent that we can all continue to be miserable, but about stuff that by contrast doesn’t matter very much.

Science is the proud inheritor of Prometheus's gift. Scientists shouldn’t let postmodernism put them down – happily, it’s not their problem.

Refs: Jeannette Winterson: Her Word. Times Books 24 November 2007, p3, and on . For more about PoMo and its ludicrous pretensions on science read: A house built on sand – exposing postmodernist myths about science by Norette Koertge (Ed: Oxford University Press, 1998)