Wells, one of the founders of science fiction, was a staunch believer in science’s potential. Orwell, on the other hand, cast a much more skeptical eye on science, pointing to its limitations as a guide to human affairs.
Expecting from science what it cannot deliver is just as hazardous as failing to acknowledge its great potential.
Though Wells and Orwell were debating in the era of Nazism, many of their arguments reverberate today in contemporary debates over science and policy. For example, in 2013, biologist Richard Dawkins justified confidence in science in these terms: “Science works. Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. It works….”
On the other hand, Nobel laureate Peter Medawar famously argued that there are many important questions that science cannot answer, such as, “What is the purpose of life?” and “To what uses should scientific knowledge be put?”
Confronting challenges such as climate change and feeding the 2 billion people who lack a reliable source of food, it might be natural to regard science as humanity’s only hope. But expecting from science what it cannot deliver is just as hazardous as failing to acknowledge its great potential.
Herbert George Wells was born in Kent, England, in 1866. After a childhood accident left him bedridden, he discovered a love of reading. He studied and taught science under biologist Thomas Huxley, eventually receiving a biology degree. To supplement his income, he worked as a freelance journalist, publishing his first book, “The Time Machine,” in 1895.
Today Wells, who died in 1946, is best known as a science fiction writer. Among his most prominent works are “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” “The Invisible Man” and “The War of the Worlds.” In his own day, however, Wells was better known as a public intellectual with progressive political views and high hopes for science.
Wells foresaw airplanes, space travel, and the atomic bomb.
Wells foresaw many of the landmarks of 20th-century scientific progress, including airplanes, space travel, and the atomic bomb. In “The Discovery of the Future,” he lamented “the blinding power of the past upon our minds,” and argued that educators should replace the classics with science, producing leaders who could foretell history as they predict the phases of the moon.
Wells’ enthusiasm for science had political implications. Having contemplated in his novels the self-destruction of mankind, Wells believed that humanity’s best hope lay in the creation of a single world government overseen by scientists and engineers. Human beings, he argued, need to set aside religion and nationalism and put their faith in the power of scientifically trained, rational experts.