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
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
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
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
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