John Polanyi
The Quest for a Truly Social Science
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 29, 2000

Science never gives up searching for truth, since it never claims to have achieved it. It is civilizing because it puts truth before all else, including personal interests. These are grand claims, but so is the enterprise in which scientists share.

Scientists must support human rights, because if democracy dies, so does free enquiry, says Nobel laureate John Polanyi. 'The bell tolls for us'

How do we encourage the civilizing effects of science? First, we have to understand science. Scientia is knowledge. Only in the popular mind is it equated with facts. That is flattering, since facts are incontrovertible. But it is also demeaning, since facts are meaningless. Science, by contrast, is story-telling; it searches for a beginning, middle and end.

What we see is, as a consequence, culturally conditioned and could be construed to mean that our conclusions are simply a matter of taste. They are not. Though we explore in a culturally-conditioned way, the reality we sketch is universal. This, at its most basic, makes science a humane pursuit; it acknowledges the commonality of people's experience.

This, in turn, implies a commonality of human worth. If we treasure our own experience, and regard it as real, we must treasure the experience of others -- reality is none the less precious if it presents itself to someone else. All are discoverers, and if we disenfranchise any, all suffer.

Our understanding of science will inform public policy toward it. If seeing is a skill, then we should rely on those who have that skill to determine what science we do. But in Canada we routinely offend against that principle. We have, for example, numerous "Centres of Excellence" because we recognize that the skill on which discovery depends is possessed by few. But when evaluating such centres, we give only a legislated 20-per-cent weighting to "excellence" and a preposterous 80 per cent to considerations of "socio-economic worth."

Our assessment of socio-economic worth is largely a sham. We scientists should not lend ourselves to it -- though we routinely do. We should, instead, insist on applying the criterion of quality. (That this criterion is real is evidenced by the awesome success of peer-reviewed science in our times). Have scientists failed to explain science? Seemingly. Have we too often kept silent because it was expedient? Undoubtedly.

Though neglectful of their responsibility to protect science, scientists are increasingly aware of their responsibility to society. But what is that?

Some dreamers demand that scientists only discover things that can be used for good. That is impossible. Science gives us a powerful vocabulary, and it is impossible to produce a vocabulary with which one can only say nice things.

Others think it the responsibility of scientists to coerce the rest of society, because they have the power that derives from special knowledge. But scientists must work through democratic channels; anything else would be incredible arrogance. Still, plenty of responsibilities remain, and in the time I've been a scientist I've seen huge changes in our perception of them.

A major issue in the late 1950s was whether Canada should acquire nuclear weapons. The United States was trying to get Canada to do the decent thing, and arm itself with nukes for the defence of North America. Individual scientists like myself pointed to the dangers of radioactive fallout over Canada if we were to launch nuclear weapons to intercept incoming bombers. On the face of it, this was technical advice. But more truthfully it was a philosophical position. We chose to make calculations concerning fallout because we were opposed to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. I do not mean to discount the technical element. I merely want to stress that what the scientist sees is influenced by what he believes.

Another public debate had to do with nuclear-fallout shelters. Technical arguments were, once more, advanced to illustrate the absurdity of sheltering a nation from a determined nuclear attack. At a deeper level, however, we were appalled by the abandonment of attempts at co-existence in favour of the life of a mole. Better to die in the pursuit of civilized values, we believed, than in a flight underground. We were offering a value system couched in the language of science.

Around 1970, my scientist friends in the United States indoctrinated me in a fresh question of policy. In the war in Vietnam, the United States was using herbicides (Agent Orange) and a tear gas (CS2). This could be construed as being in contravention of the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons (one of the few instruments of international law regulating the use of weapons, and therefore precious).

I went off to see our ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and the Prime Minister. God knows how I got into their offices, but I did. They gave me a hard time, protesting, "These things are used for killing weeds and for riot control; how can you say they are weapons of war?" The answer was that when employed to prosecute a war, they had become weapons of war. They were being used to expose the enemy, so as to kill him.

One does not need to be a chemist to make that point. But it helps to come from a community with a commitment to objectivity, and a degree of independence from special interests. Under scientific and moral pressure, the Canadian government conceded publicly they considered the use of these weapons in Vietnam a contravention of the Geneva Protocol. Washington was not pleased.

What we in the scientific community were seeking, in our idealism, was a world ruled by law. The moral force that we brought to this debate derived from our membership in an international community ruled by law, albeit unwritten law -- for without the acceptance and enforcement of standards of probity, there would be no functioning scientific community.

And without steps being taken to widen this realm of rule-based co-operation, beyond the narrow bounds of science and similar professions, there will be anarchy and ultimately all-out war. Technology had made such war intolerable. The solution lies not in more technology, but in less war.

When in March, 1983, president Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars, this issue was clearly joined. President Reagan was offering a technical fix to the threat of nuclear war. The SDI was to be the scientist's antidote to the nuclear poison. However, in the process of distributing this illusory antidote, we were to abandon the only genuine defence against nuclear missiles, which lay -- as it still lies -- in institutionalized restraint.

The SDI was an invitation to a new arms race, one in nuclear shields, which would proceed in parallel to the continuing arms race in swords. With missile defences back in the news, this is a lesson to remember.

In the course of these political struggles, scientists became increasingly aware of themselves as an international non-governmental organization. This NGO bases itself, I claim, not primarily on its technical expertise but on its moral tenets. In science we have a group of individuals supporting one another, worldwide, in an endeavour whose success depends upon placing the truth ahead of personal advantage. Not all succeed in doing this, but all are agreed as to the necessity. In science, truth must take precedence not only over individual advantage, but also over "group advantage" -- sectional interests such as nationality, creed or ethnicity.

This assertion of higher purpose has made all scholars supporters of human rights and puts to rest the notion that what we are offering is primarily technical expertise. It is the moral force of science -- evident in such individuals as Bertrand Russell and Andrei Sakharov -- that makes it effective. And our community's voyage of self discovery will lead us to a more active support of democracy, wherever it is threatened.

That notion would have seemed preposterous when I began my life as a scientist. No longer. Today Academies of Science use their influence around the world in support of human rights. They should do the same for democracy, for the death of democracy is the death of free enquiry. The bell tolls for us.

John Polanyi is a Nobel prize winner in chemistry at the University of Toronto.





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