The madness of Prince Charles
HRH Prince Charles' Reith lecture, Respect for the earth – A royal view, has angered and depressed in equal measure the entire science community. His mystical, and at times quite whimsical, views on the sacred status of nature started to make even Vandana Shiva's earlier lecture in the series seem half-way sensible. (See Back to nature in India?) His explicit hostility towards scientific rationalism, which he claimed was smothering 'a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator', baffled not only scientists but also a few theologians. And his predictable attack on genetic engineering as failing to show 'respect for the genius of nature's designs' added further insult to those who believe passionately in the role of such technology in generating self-sustaining agriculture in those parts of the world currently prey to drought, famine and disease.
Prince Charles, of course, has a long history of high-minded pontificating on issues about which he is generally quite ill-informed – not least his campaign against modern architecture. And his profound lack of understanding of the true motivation and role of the scientist in modern society revealed the underlying vacuity of his sentimentalist speech. Professor Steve Jones' comment that he should 'go back to school and do more A-levels' was, in the circumstances, quite a mild rebuke – certainly given the Prince's reference to Bertrand Russell, most commonly regarded as a philosopher and mathematician, as a 'scientist'.
The Prince's unqualified support for the precautionary principle again exposes his failure to appreciate the consequences of what he is proposing. He claims that rather than being an obstacle to progress it is a 'sign of strength and wisdom'. But he is wrong. All of our evolution and cultural development has been achieved through evidence-based assessment of risks and subsequent progressive action. The precautionary principle, however, would have ruled out Columbus discovering the Americas, blood transfusions, open heart surgery and even the steam locomotive. It also now threatens to put a halt to the rich benefits that bio-engineering can bring to feeding an ever-increasing world population and to the eradication of diseases.
It is, perhaps, fitting that Prince Charles' lecture has been welcomed mostly by members of the British aristocracy. The Baron Melchett, Director of Greenpeace, for example, said in The Times: "it is about time somebody pointed out how bereft of humanity and human values it is for people to claim that they can take decisions simply on the basis of what they call 'sound science'." But if we abandon 'sound science' as our guiding principle, then whose principle should we adopt – that of the British monarchy and aristocracy? That of unelected and elitist environmental activist groups? Or that of religious zealots?
The views expressed by our monarch-in-waiting threaten to return us to the dark days of irrationality and bigotry which were characteristic of the times leading up to the reign of his distant predecessor and namesake Charles I – a man who believed, for self-serving reasons, in the Divine Right of Kings and the over-riding authority of the Church. That Charles, of course, had failed to notice the shifting tide of sentiment in English society away from such doctrines towards a new rationalism, and he paid the ultimate price for his lack of judgement when he was beheaded outside Whitehall Palace. Perhaps it is just as well that we now live in rather more tolerant times.