Has science lost the ‘mandate of heaven’?

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

We who are the beneficiaries of technology must also listen and respond to the voices of frustration if science is to regain public trust.

My generation lived through a time when advancement in technology and standards of living went hand in hand. Our lives were easier and more prosperous than those of our parents and unrecognisable from those of our grandparents. 

For my grandfather, able to watch live sport on his television as his pacemaker kept him alive, the postwar decades were a golden age. And, for younger people, the benefits of technology were amplified by access to education. For someone like me, who left industrial South Wales for a scientific life in Oxford, there was no question that the knowledge held in universities was a key to a better life and world. 

Companies ran big research labs, and governments – delighted by the possibilities of what, 60 years ago last month, UK prime minister Harold Wilson called the white heat of technology – pushed money into universities to expand their departments of science and technology. Even the Cold War threat of global nuclear conflict unleashed by science required investment in defence science to maintain a peaceful balance, leading to semiconductors and the internet. The children of a technological age would have peace, ease, a healthy comfortable life and a good job. 

So how did we get from delight in the discovery of the polio vaccine in 1955 to the anti-vax movement during the Covid pandemic that surprised and perplexed so many of us? Why would people reject a development that could save their own lives? Why would they prefer conspiracy over truth? 

Nor was Covid an isolated case. Across the world, experts face increasing suspicion. Are new medications really necessary, or is Big Pharma on the make? Is climate science in fact a front for greater state control? Is Artificial Intelligence a nail in the coffin of individual freedom?  

The questions share a common undertone. Not far beneath the surface lies a loss of trust in science, technology and medicine, a suspicion that those who are the gatekeepers to them may not be acting in our interest after all. 

It is not so hard to discern the reasons. The reality is that the post-war trust in scientific progress was never based solely on an idea that science had a monopoly on truth. Instead, it was driven by science’s promise of a demonstrably better life. People saw changes in their homes, transport, appliances, prosperity and work which made them ready to believe in the optimism that a BBC television programme showcasing the latest advances called “tomorrow’s world”.  

But the tigers come at night. Little by little, for some, increases in prosperity not only stalled but reversed. Technological breakthroughs meant some jobs were replaced or offshored. Robots stripped out jobs from manufacturing. The suspicion grew that promises of progress were a cover for the self-interest of the few. Disappointment and anger grew.  

A new political divide emerged not only around age but education. The US rust belt and UK red wall railed against the liberal elite, the affluent “woke”, who seemed deaf do their very real frustrations: the loss of blue-collar jobs, the shut mines and factories, the boarded-up high streets. Anxiety turned to anger. 

Throughout history, when things get tough, those with influence are often blamed. In imperial China, the phrase tianming, meaning mandate of heaven, referred to the idea that emperors rule legitimately only insofar as they serve the interest of the people. If this trust was severed, the gods withdrew the mandate and the ruler, however powerful, was justifiably overthrown. 

The signs of that withdrawal were fire and flood, disease and disaster – and surely we have our modern equivalents in the political eruptions and earthquakes shaking the Western world. Opportunistic politicians say the people are being tricked out of the birthright that was theirs by right of nationality, race or class by a metropolitan and technocratic elite that is out of touch and complicit. If the people do not resist, others will steal the bread out of their hands and, with it, their work, their housing, their hopes of a better life. 

The irony is that such populism relies heavily on technological channels to spread. Moreover, it will take all of the insights of science and scholarship to even make a dent in the existential challenges we all face. Confronted with fascism, the physicists of Los Alamos once feared they might become the destroyers of worlds. But if we are to have a hope of addressing the political and environmental challenges of our own time, while creating the next generation of work for the children of working-class communities across the world, we must not throw out the scientific baby with the bathwater.  

The 19th-century Russian reformer Alexander Herzen said, “For us, there is only one voice, one power: the power of reason and understanding. In rejecting them we become the unfrocked priests of science, renegades from civilisation.” 

But we will only regain the mandate of heaven if we who are the beneficiaries of technology also listen and respond to the voices of frustration. We must rise to the challenge of seeing the real lives behind our campus perimeters. We must care enough to make work and opportunities for everyone’s children. We must remember that is not too late to build a better world. 

This article originally appeared here in Time Higher Education.