Science is helpless
In the media, the volcanic ash has sometimes been treated as a natural catastrophe, sometimes as a meteorological phenomenon; sometimes it has been said to concern the economy (that is, the financial loss of the airline companies or of those who rely on air transport, such as the flower growers in Kenya). At other times the focus has been on the disruption of social life and the plight of passengers stranded abroad for days, even weeks. The main argument in favour of the closure of airspace over Europe was the danger that the volcanic dust posed to planes’ engines; the main argument against was the financial loss this closure entailed for the airlines and the wider economy.
The confusion of natural and cultural or economic concerns in the arguments over the prohibition of flights raised the following suspicion: how come the scientific evidence began to suggest it was safe to fly over most of Europe just when the pressure from the airlines became most intense? Is this not further proof that capital is the only real thing in our lives, with even scientific judgements having to bend to its will?
The problem is that scientists are supposed to know, but they do not. Science is helpless and covers up this helplessness with a deceptive screen of expert assurance. We rely more and more on experts, even in the most intimate domains of our experience (sexuality and religion). As a result, the field of scientific knowledge is transformed into a terrain of conflicting “expert opinions”.
Most of the threats we face today are not external (or “natural”), but generated by human activity shaped by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, say, or the psychic consequences of uncontrolled genetic engineering), so that the sciences are simultaneously the source of such threats, our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them…
How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat.