Is progress inevitable or are we doomed as a species by our own folly? It seems like a fairly fundamental question about our own condition, and it has certainly entertained many great minds and spawned thousands of works in literature and the arts – but the extinction or survival of civilisation enters the realm of science in the latest episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, a chat show mixing comedy and popular science.

Host Brian Cox asks a very simple question: can science save us? And that is perhaps a tricky formulations, since we must first understand what we mean by science. Cox equates science to knowledge, a conception I would disagree vehemently with. While this may be accurate etymologically, the modern conception of science is the application of the scientific method to understand nature – with the resulting understanding forming part of a much wider umbrella term of knowledge. The key distinction is that science is a way of doing things rather than the end result, which is what permits us to falsify previously held ideas (i.e. knowledge) about how the world works.

If we step back then, and assume we are speaking about knowledge derived from science, we can follow the line of the radio programme and ask: is knowledge always a good thing?

It not in the nature of knowledge to be necessarily a positive thing – it is a truism to say ‘ignorance is bliss’, after all. For example, if you were very far away from your family and you learnt that one of your loved ones has passed away, you may feel distressed. But if such news never arrived, you will carry on your merry ways, despite the reality of the world is that that person is well and truly dead.

But knowledge is completely dependent on interpretation – for example, if you learn that our Earth, this planet, is going to be consumed by the sun and disappear and in a few million years, you might lose sleep over that. But if you also learnt that those few million years are an astronomically large amount of time, and that humans will either be gone or long since evolved into some inconceivable creature, that we will have little to no emotional attachment to whatever species plods the Earth at that time, and the Earth itself would be unrecognisable to our eyes, then you will feel perhaps less upset about the whole affair.

While knowledge may impact our thinking and acting, in the strict sense, neither science (a method) nor knowledge (ideas) are of any practical use to us, but rather their distillation into technological advances or behavioural and societal changes that positively impact our ability to survive and live comfortable lives on this planet.

While it may seem pedantic, it is worth arguing that understanding this triad; science as the approach, knowledge as the vehicle and change as the product, is important to how we conceive the world, how we tackle the issues of today and, as Dr Lucie Green unremittingly points out, how we fund the science of tomorrow.

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Episode 4, Series 10 of The Infinite Monkey Cage aired on BBC Radio and is available as a podcast with extra material. The hosts were Brian Cox and Robert Ince and the guests were Stephen Fry, Prof Tony Ryan and Dr Lucie Green.

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