Thursday, March 08, 2012

Science and politics cannot be unmixed

One of the leaders in this week’s Nature is mine; here’s the original draft.

Paul Nurse will not treat his presidency of the Royal Society as an ivory tower. He has made it clear that he considers that scientists have duties to fulfil and battles to fight beyond the strictly scientific, for example to “expose the bunkum” of politicians who abuse and distort science. This social engagement was evident last week when Nurse delivered the prestigious Dimbleby Lecture, instituted in memory of the British broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Previous scientific incumbents have included George Porter, Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter.

Nurse identified support for the National Health Service, the need for an immigration policy that attracts foreign scientists, and inspirational science teaching in primary education as some of the priorities for British scientists. These and many of the other issues that he raised, such as increasing scientists’ interactions with industry, commerce and the media, and resisting politicization of climate-change research, are relevant around the globe.

All the more reason not to misinterpret Nurse’s insistence on a separation of science and politics: as he put it more than once, “first science, then politics”. What Nurse rightly warned against here is the intrusion of ideology into the interpretation and acceptance of scientific knowledge, as for example with the Soviet Union’s support of the anti-Mendelian biology of Trofim Lysenko. Given recent accounts of political (and politically endorsed commercial) interference in climate research in the US (see Nature 465, 686; 2010), this is a timely reminder.

But it is all too easy to render this equation too simplistically. For example, Nurse also cited the rejection of Einstein’s “Jewish” relativistic physics by Hitler. But that is not quite how it was. “Jewish physics” was a straw man invented by the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi physicists Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, partly because of professional jealousies and grudges. The Nazi leaders were, however, largely indifferent to what looked like an academic squabble, and in the end lost interest in Stark and Lenard’s risible “Aryan physics” because they needed a physics that actually worked.

Therein lies one reason to be sceptical of the common claim, repeated by Nurse, that science can only flourish in a free society. Historians of science in Nazi Germany such as Kristie Macrakis (in Surviving the Swastika; 1993) have challenged this assertion, which is not made true simply because we would like it to be so. Authoritarian regimes are perfectly capable of putting pragmatism before ideology. The scientific process itself is not impeded by state control in China – quite the contrary – and the old canard that Chinese science lacks innovation and daring is now transparently nonsense. During the Cold War, some Soviet science was vibrant and bold. Even the most notorious example of state repression of science – the trial of Galileo – is apt to be portrayed too simplistically as a conflict of faith and reason rather than a collision of personalities and circumstances (none of which excuses Galileo’s scandalous persecution).

There is a more edifying lesson to be drawn from Nazi Germany that bears on Nurse’s themes. This is that, while political (and religious) ideology has no place in deciding scientific questions, the practice of doing science is inherently political. In that sense, science can never come before politics. Scientists enter into a social contract, not least because they are not their own paymasters. Much if not most scientific research has social and political implications, often broadly visible from the outset. In times of economic and political crisis (like these), scientists must respond intellectually and professionally, and not merely by safeguarding their funding, important though that is.

The consequences of imagining that science can remain aloof from politics became acutely apparent in Germany in 1933, when the consensus view that politics was, as Heisenberg put it, an unseemly “money business” meant that most scientists saw no reason to mount concerted resistance to the expulsion of Jewish colleagues – regarded as a political rather than a moral matter. This ‘apolitical’ attitude can now be seen as a convenient myth that led to acquiescence and made it easy for the German scientists to be manipulated. It would be naïve to imagine that only totalitarianism could create such a situation.

The rare and most prominent exception to ‘apolitical’ behaviour was Einstein, whose outspokenness dismayed even his principled friends Max Planck and Max von Laue. “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters”, he told them. “Does not such restraint signify a lack of responsibility?” There was no hint of such a lack in Nurse’s talk. But we must take care to distinguish the political immunity of scientific reasoning from the political dimensions and obligations of doing science.

1 comment:

Maxine Clarke said...

Phil, thanks for this longer version of your leader. It is really good- Nurse had a brief letter in the Times yesterday in response to Vince Cable's leaked letter, & there is a nice response to that today. Sorry cannot send you links as I read the print Times and don't pay for the online versions.