Science vs. Superstition – The case for a new scientific enlightenment

Edited by James Panton and Oliver Marc Hartwich, Policy Exchange and University of Buckingham Press, London and Buckingham 2006, ISBN 0-9551909-8-3 (PDF)

science vs superstition – the case for a new scientific enlightenment challenges the common belief that scientific progress in today’s world inevitably entails an element of danger or moral uncertainty. While many people seem to lack the vision of a genuinely better future, the authors of this collection of essays believe that it is time to make the case for a more positive attitude towards the future – a future that is made better through science.

In eight chapters, science vs superstition shows how our perception of science has changed in recent decades and examines several case studies of the battle of scientific progress against unsubstantiated fears.

Chapter 1: The century of science and the culture of pessimism
German journalists and popular science authors Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch discuss how scientific breakthroughs have become less likely in recent decades. They claim that a wrong-headed emphasis on precaution has led modern society into a culture of pessimism. A confident debate about science is needed to open a more optimistic vision of the future.

Chapter 2: The problem of the precautionary principle: the paternalism of the precautionary coalition
Dutch environmental researchers Jaap C. Hanekamp and Wybren Verstegen analyse how the precautionary principle has developed into a political tool to block ‘unwanted’ new technologies. They present examples that demonstrate that the precautionary principle as such is an intellectually meaningless and politically dangerous concept.

Chapter 3: The rise of the ethics committee: regulation by another name?
Birmingham University psychologist Stuart W. G. Derbyshire critically evaluates the work of research ethics committees. He shows how these committees have stifled innovation and investigation. What is really needed, he claims, is a restoration of academic freedom and more trust in scientists’ expertise.

Chapter 4: Anti-vivisection and the culture of misanthropy
James Panton, lecturer in Politics at St John’s College, Oxford, tackles the myth that the anti- animals testing movement is a powerful force. Rather, it is a small minority trying to impose its misanthropic views on the rest of society. Improving the conditions under which we human beings can live must, he argues, prevail over often exaggerated animal welfare concerns.

Chapter 5: “A disaster waiting to happen” – why are we so anti-nuclear?
Physicist and energy policy expert Joe Kaplinsky examines the popular objections to nuclear power. These, he maintains, have their origins in the wartime effort to build an atomic bomb and were strengthened by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. The real impact of both events, however, was grossly exaggerated in the media, and nuclear power should still be on the agenda when it comes to defining the right energy mix for the future.

Chapter 6: The problem of stem cell research regulation – limiting the individual right to self-determination
German scientific journalists Thilo Spahl and Thomas Deichmann analyse the arguments for and against embryonic stem cell research. They maintain that stem cell research promises great scientific and medical progress which could eventually help to cure diseases. Ethical concerns about this kind of research, however, are based on a false equation of an undifferentiated heap of cells with cognisant human beings.

Chapter 7: Genetically modified crops and the perils of rejecting innovation
Science writer and journalist Matt Ridley explains why, despite great popular prejudice, genetically modified products are neither dangerous to the environment nor detrimental to human health. On the contrary, they present an opportunity, especially for poorer countries where GM foods can assist in providing populations with nutrients and vitamins.

Chapter 8: Climate change – scepticism and science as drivers of progress
Economist Oliver Marc Hartwich asks what role science can play in the search for an appropriate response to the challenge of climate change. Against assertions of a “climate change consensus” he insists that science should be an open and ongoing process of inquiry and, thus, scientists should develop a wide range of strategies to deal with our changing climate.