Michael Hagmann is European correspondent for Science magazine.A version of this article appears in the 26 May issue of Science.
The scientific establishment got a royal roasting last Wednesday as Prince Charles decried society's overdependence on science and technology. He predicted "potentially disastrous ... consequences" if today's science is allowed to go unchecked and "the spiritual dimension of our existence" is neglected. In a lecture broadcast by BBC's Radio 4, the Prince of Wales paints a picture of a once-idyllic natural world that is in jeopardy from scientists eager to tinker with it according to whim.
Prince Charles has long been known as anything but friendly toward biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food, but his most recent 22-minute rant amounted to a broadside against the entire scientific endeavour with its, in his mind, excessive rationalism. Delving deep into an obscure mysticism in which he blends religious beliefs of all colours into an all-encompassing deity that he calls the "creator" or "sustainer," the prince bemoans that mankind at large--and scientists in particular--have lost a "sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world." This, he fears, may do more harm than good and, eventually, lead to an environmental catastrophe. So how can we avoid this dire scenario? Just listen to the "wisdom of your heart," is the prince's blunt advice. Although admitting that scientific research is important, Charles is convinced that science alone cannot provide all the answers the human spirit is looking for. Instead it should be paired with "an instinctive, heart-felt awareness that provides ... the most reliable guide as to whether our actions are really in the long-term interests of our planet."
Needless to say, the attack drew fierce reaction from the scientific community. "It's not very constructive to attempt to paint science as a threat to society--which it clearly is not. Science has contributed tremendously to the progress in medicine but also to other aspects of society over the last 100 years or so, and to say that the world as it once was is a place we would want to go back to may be true for people in very privileged positions, but certainly not for most of us," says geneticist Martin Bobrow of the University of Cambridge. John Sulston, director of the Sanger Centre, agrees. "It's fundamentally wrong to equate scientific rationalism with the desecration of our planet," he says.
With his science bashing, the prince is definitely hitting a nerve, especially in Europe where anti-GM food demonstrations are a fashionable pastime of late, acknowledges John Durant, professor of the public understanding of science at London's Imperial College. "He is identifying some deep-seated anxieties in some parts of our society about science and technology," he says. Durant and Sulston even agree with the prince on one thing--there's a need to judge carefully which new technologies are wise to use, that is, beneficial in the long run, and which ones aren't. But the royal panacea doesn't work for Durant. "I don't see that there are easy solutions [to this] simply by recognizing the spiritual or intuitive side" of human nature, Durant says. And Sulston adds, "The notion that going back to ignorance would help solve our problems is so absurd that most thinking people would see the error."