Today's date:
Summer 2001


Science and Conscience

John Polanyi won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1986. He is presently a professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences study group on "joint data exchange" between the United States and Russia on nuclear weapons. This essay salutes the 100th anniversary of the birth of Linus Pauling in 1901.

Toronto-The American who most clearly brought the concepts of science and conscience together was Linus Pauling. Science was his passion. He did not have much to say about conscience, since to talk about it would have been to philosophize, and philosophy held few charms for him. It was not conscience but conscience-at-work that interested Pauling. His was a world in which consequences flowed from actions. It was the sort of robust view one associated with the American West, from which he hailed.

This is both a strength and a weakness in the American tradition. It gets things done. Quite often they are the right things. However, a European, living (figuratively) within walking distance of Athens, is more likely to take the view that philosophy, whether we acknowledge it or not, underlies what we do.

My own roots being in Europe, I feel bound to reflect on the meanings of words. The first such is "science," which comes, of course, from scientia knowledge. We use it to denote knowledge derived from observation of the outside world. The second word is "conscience," with which I have linked science. Con-science has the same root as science, but is the knowledge we carry within us.

The type of knowing that we call science is inevitably linked to the type we call conscience. The reason is that our observations of the outside world can only be transmitted to one place, which is to our minds, that harbor conscience.

It is true that as scientists we try, in the interest of objectivity, to separate these aspects of our being; to separate what we see from what we know. We don't want, like the early painters in Australia whose training had been in England, to paint elm trees in a landscape dominated by eucalyptus. At the same time we know that without our inner compass we cannot hope to navigate the outer world. We have no choice but to bring our science into touch with our conscience.

Indeed, science is itself a cultural activity akin to painting. A painter makes a record of nature. So does a scientist. In doing this, scientist and painter are both engaged in making statements about the world they see. The fact that scientists most often paint with symbols and numbers does not alter that.

In their quest for patterns scientists have been sketching nature in recent times to such effect that they have transformed the accepted view of matter, energy, space, life, death and the universe. Through this, they have reshaped the world we live in, extending and enriching human life and, at the same time, furnishing the ultimate machinery of death. There has never before in history been a renaissance that so fundamentally and so speedily transformed the world.

Happily, the nature of the transformation has been the opposite of that predicted by the past century's major prophets: Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Rather than the individual becoming the prisoner of technology, it is the tyrants who are being imprisoned and the people who are being freed as, one by one, the borders that divided them erode. This is not to say that equity and tranquility prevail, only that the need for both has never been more evident.

Because of the power of science to change our world, many look for magic in it. They call this "scientific proof," and think of it as incontrovertible. Happily for mankind there is no such thing. There is always room for doubt. It is the achievement of consensus that is the best test we have of truth. And this is the moment at which we judge that a scientific proposition has been "proven."

The achievement of that consensus is made possible by the fact that we respect not only our own experience but also that of others. We arrive at an agreement as to the nature of creation, on the basis of values we hold in common. "This," we say after long debate, "is how it is." This fits what we know.

To move with assurance from science to conscience it is necessary to take a closer look at the scientific community that makes this judgment. One distinguishing thing is that it is international. But what makes it function as a community is its ethic. It has a shared ideal, which is to put the truth ahead of personal advantage.

Any scientist who did not believe that objectivity, to such an extent as it can be achieved, takes precedence over self-advancement would not belong in science. If a scientist put such unethical ideas into action by, for example, falsifying data, he or she would be banished from the community of science forever. The same is, of course, true not only of science but of any scholarly pursuit.

This commitment to truth, it should be stressed, is at the same time a commitment to the tenets we call "human rights." For the truth, being no monopoly of one race, religion or nationality, is open to all and deserves our respect from whomever it comes. Moreover, the devotion to truth is the commitment to an endless journey, at every step of which we must be willing to tolerate dissent, for it is the dissenters who will point the way ahead. What I am describing is, in fact, the functioning of a democratic society.

From the acknowledgment of human rights, which lies at the heart of a democratic society, there should flow a sense of responsibility to safeguard those rights. As individual responsibility has flowered in society at large over the past decades, so it has among scientists. It is no longer considered ethical to don a white coat and lead a life of monastic devotion to one's calling. Scientists are citizens. Better yet, they are global citizens. Conspicuously, though, they still too infrequently act as such.

Linus Pauling became a scientist in the pre-Atomic Age, before the advent of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The prevailing view at the time was that scientists should not get involved in debating social issues. If they did so, it was thought, they would contaminate the pure stream of scientific logic with the value judgments that inform politics.

But I have been arguing that value judgments are a part of science. I doubt that Pauling acknowledged this. But he might well have noticed that his values as a peace activist mirrored those as a scientist: visionary, principled and fearless.
For he was unquestionably brave. In his campaign for a ban on nuclear testing he risked his career, his research grants, his job and his reputation. He showed that the true visionary in science can have something comparable to offer (fallibly) to society at large.

What is it, then, that scientists have to offer as citizens? They are numerate, and they are literate. They belong to an international community with a commitment to objectivity and with bonds of trust. But they do not have a certain path to truth. And they are not all-wise. Neither are any other citizens.

I have not dwelt on the remarkable nature of the community to which scientists belong. It is a real community with leaders, laws, fellowship and history. Amazingly, it has held together for centuries without formal government, without inherited privilege and without violence, police or prisons. It is sufficiently tolerant to actually invite dissent. Its heretics are not burnt at the stake but hailed as heroes.

This is not, of course, a society of angels. Personal ambition is a major driving force. But to a substantial degree this force is harnessed to a shared goal. That goal is not a venal or cruel one, but the humane goal of understanding. If the society of science could, through example, give humans this as their common destiny, it would make its greatest gift to mankind.

back to index