In Blog

Questions That Need Asking

by Michael Riordin

My original impulse to write Bold Scientists sprang from an encounter with 17th century politician-philosopher Francis Bacon. I was writing a radio play for the CBC at the time, about the making of the King James Bible, published during Bacon’s lifetime.

Bacon famously asserted that if we could break down nature into its parts — her parts, he said, tellingly — we would learn her secrets and thus be able to control her to our benefit. The tool he proposed for this conquest was analytical science.

Four hundred years later, the results are mixed, to say the least, and questions need to be asked. Some of them are vital to our survival. For as Sir Francis Bacon also wrote (less famously but no less crucially) “The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall; the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall.” (Essays, 1625.)

My own work as a writer – six books, more than 60 radio/web documentaries and plays, films and videos – is propelled by a spirit of restless inquiry, an impulse to question: authority, givens, habits of thought, easy answers in a world where they usually carry price tags. I consider this spirit of inquiry fundamental to any pursuit of knowledge, including science.

Bold Scientists emerged from my own fear, anger, and curiosity. I’m afraid for the earth, for imagination, for compassion, truth-telling, humility, and common sense. We are so smart in our inventions that we believe we’re omniscient, and so powerful in our effects that we believe we’re omnipotent. But we are neither, and believing we are makes us crazy.

I’m angry because so few people hold so much power, with no just cause, and do so much harm with it. I’m angry because so many of us fail to exercise the limited but real power we still have. I include myself in that charge: it’s not that I do nothing, but neither do I do enough.

In Canada, a major source of power’s grievous harm is the current federal government’s escalating assault on any honest science that serves the public good. To my way of thinking, it’s a bit broad to call it a “war on science.” The aim of the Harper regime is more precise than that. For example, they would have no qualms in supporting research which leads to stealthier, more deadly drones, or genetic manipulation that fosters monopoly control of food production, or ever more destructive methods to suck the last dregs of oil and gas from earth and oceans, or drugs to more effectively numb dissent, or more cunning ways to spy on us.

On the other hand, any knowledge which causes us to challenge or even question the agenda of power is anathema, as it has always been to the powerful. So, rather than a war on science, what I see is a war on any knowledge – whether or not it’s derived through science – that challenges the agenda of power and profit. This includes any knowledge that fosters our ability to think for ourselves, and to make rational decisions based on those thoughts. Without these we cannot hope to build authentic democracy, without which we cannot reasonably expect to defend the earth.

Which is why I wrote Bold Scientists.

To satisfy my curiosity, I went looking for scientists working in a range of fields who challenge an array of status quos, ask prickly questions they aren’t supposed to ask, and reveal knowledge the authorities prefer to conceal.  These are deep, wide thinkers in several countries.  Among them:

  • At the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, Seneca First Nation biologist Henry Lickers integrates analytical science with traditional knowledge and a trickster’s wit.
  • Engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, once a consultant to the oil/gas industry, now exposes the myths and dangers of fracking
  • At the Nature Institute in May Hill, New York, Craig Holdrege counters the dominant science-as-conquest paradigm with a Goethean practice of science-as-dialogue
  • In San Salvador, forensic geneticist Patricia Vásques Marías uses DNA analysis to trace children stolen by the military during El Salvador’s 1980s civil war
  • David Lyon, a sociologist at Queen’s University, investigates the lure and threat of ever-expanding mass surveillance, as it burrows into our lives
  • In Cincinnati, Ohio, radical psychologist Bruce Levine tackles psychiatry’s dangerous power to define and control dissent
  • And in Manitoba, young marine biologist Diane Orihel risked her career to defend science and democracy in Canada.

In exploring the lives and work of these bold scientists, I plumb the deepening fault lines between nature, science, and power. By nature I mean the universe, which is not of our making and in which we are becoming, more and more, a pest. By science I mean the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, which can be sought and used in infinite ways. And by power I mean the capacity to act, which all of us have, at least to some degree.

Tyrants are fond of telling us, “There is no alternative.”

They lie. 

There are alternatives, always.  When muzzling and suppression prevent us from seeing them, visionaries insist on imagining alternatives and fighting for them. Bold Scientists emerges from that imagining and that fight. I think of it as an antidote to despair.

Michael Riordon is a Canadian writer and documentary film-maker. He leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities across the country. Michael lives with his partner in rural eastern Ontario.