October 31, 2014

Is science neutral?

Following the articles in The Ecologist of April 2000 examining the independence of the scientific world, developmental biologist Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College London debates the neutrality of science with environmentalist and Ecologist founder Edward Goldsmith.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 30 No. 3, May 2000.


Dear Professor Wolpert,

One thing that modern science is not and cannot be is neutral – or, for it comes to the same thing, objective.

To begin with, scientific knowledge is empirical – founded on observation or perception. But perception is subjective. It begins with the detection of data, which is an active rather than a passive process, data being detected, rather as a mine is detected and not just passively received. It is then interpreted in the light of one’s mental model of our relationship with the world around us. A perception is thus no more than a hypothesis based on a ‘paradigm’ developed during the course of our upbringing within our cultural group, whose values and beliefs it will reflect.

That the human mind is simply not designed to entertain objective knowledge is acknowledged by enlightened philosophers of science. Michael Polanyi, for instance, considered that only someone brought up in total isolation from human society could entertain such knowledge, and Karl Popper described objective knowledge as “knowledge without a knower”, though he thought it possible to build objective “logical constructs”.

It is further argued by those who see science as objective that a scientific proposition is one that has been ‘verified’ or ‘falsified’ empirically. However, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, modern scientists are generally more concerned with “problem solving” than they are with fundamental issues. And because today’s scientists believe unquestioningly in the same overall paradigm, it is only the details that are tested, while the paradigm, and hence the scientists’ fundamental beliefs, are never tested “and could be guaranteed to emerge unscathed” even if they were.

Michael Polanyi considered that “the test of proof or disproof is. . . irrelevant to the acceptance or rejection of fundamental beliefs”. To the modern scientist, for example, the belief that man is a rational, as opposed to rationalising, being, that evolution proceeds by natural selection from random variations, and that all benefits are the product of science, technology and industry, is fundamental. It would be difficult to imagine a test that could persuade them otherwise. Hence Max Planck’s oft-repeated saying that

“a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents, and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

It is reasonable to trace the origins of modern science to Francis Bacon (which is not to play down the roles played by Galileo and Descartes). He was the first to insist that science be methodically separated from values so as to make it truly ‘neutral’. In reality he did nothing of the sort. His ‘scientific knowledge’, instead of being value-free, set out explicitly and purposefully to give humanity power over nature.

“Truth and utility are perfectly identical”, he wrote in his Novum Organum, and “that which is most useful in practice is most correct in theory”. In effect he merely replaced the old ‘subjective’ values of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with the values of ‘useful’ and ‘useless’, or more precisely of contributing or not contributing to man’s domination over or transformation of the natural world. There were to be no limits to this transformation. His goal was explicitly stated. It was to “achieve all things achievable”. At least he was honest enough to admit it.

Modern science has followed Bacon’s lead to the letter but does not admit it. It serves two purposes. The first is to provide the knowledge that will enable technologists and industrialists to transform the planet. As such it is reductionistic, since a holistic science could not conceivably lead to the development of pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified crops or atom bombs.

The second is to rationalise, and hence legitimise, such endeavours by accentuating their apparent short-term benefits. Again, a truly holistic science would be undesirable as it would reveal the intolerable biological, social and ecological implications of such endeavours.

Edward Goldsmith.


Dear Edward Goldsmith,

Science is the best way of understanding how the world works and has been astonishingly successful in doing so; and I disagree with almost everything that you write in your letter. Contrary to your view, I claim that reliable scientific knowledge is morally and ethically neutral, and ethics only enter when science is applied to making a product, for example, GM foods. If we are not at the centre of the universe, and genes are responsible for determining some of our behaviour, that is the way the world is – it is neither good nor bad. Knowledge can be used for both good and evil. Of course scientists in their work have the responsibilities of all citizens to do no harm and be honest.

Their additional responsibility is to put their work and its possible applications in the public domain. But one must distinguish between scientific knowledge and its application – technology. It is the very nature of science that it is not possible to predict what will be discovered or how these discoveries could be applied.

The idea that science is not objective and does not tell us how the world works is a philosophical problem that bears no relation to reality. Do you really not believe that we are made of cells or that the heart pumps blood or that DNA is the genetic material? Practising scientists have not the slightest interest in the philosophy of science, and, in the historian Gerald Holton’s phrase, view philosophy of science as a “debilitating befuddlement”.

In his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, the distinguished physicist Weinberg has a whole chapter entitled “Against Philosophy”. He describes himself as “an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy”, and continues, “I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose work has been significantly helped by the philosophers”. This is also true of biology and the tremendous success of genetics and molecular biology.

Philosophers of science have contributed nothing that helps us understand the scientific process. The oft-quoted counter-example is Karl Popper’s famous book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper claimed to have solved the problem of induction by arguing that science proceeds by a sequence of bold conjectures rather than being based on observations, and that then these conjectures are replaced when they are falsified. Falsification is all and verification irrelevant.

This view completely ignores the nature of discovery in science, and fails to explain how one knows that a falsification is correct. He goes so far as to say, “Our science is not knowledge; it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability. . . We do not know; we can only guess”. What nonsense – DNA is the genetic material and codes for proteins.

The so-called “fundamental beliefs” of science you claim are largely your invention. I have no knowledge that scientists as a group believe man (no women?) to be rational. Most do believe that evolution works by natural selection on changes in organisms due to random changes in their DNA, and the evidence for this is overwhelming.

I admire Kuhn, but he does not use science as only “problem solving” in your pejorative sense. Scientists deal with the most fundamental of problems relating to how nature functions. Planck’s point about scientists being unwilling to change their minds emphasises that science is a communal process in which the views and contributions of the individual are in the long run irrelevant . One should not give up one’s ideas too easily.

It is to Archimedes and Galileo that we should point to the origins of modern science – Bacon discovered nothing, and was all talk. Truth and utility are not the same. I do not understand what ‘holistic’ science means. It must be true that all phenomena in the universe are controlled by the same set of fundamental physical laws. I cannot believe that you would disagree. But that is not the same as wanting to explain everything in terms of physics.

There are different levels of organisation, long recognised by biologists, and the reductionist approach is to try and account for the phenomena at one level in terms of the properties of the components of the next level down. It is unnecessary to go down to further levels but there must be nothing in one’s explanations that contradict laws that hold at lower levels, like, for example, the laws of physics. The trick is to find the right level at which to try and explain the phenomena. No one would attempt to deal with economics in terms of the behaviour of molecules, but that is exactly what has been so brilliantly successful with cell and developmental biology. The language of cells is, as Sydney Brenner once put it, molecules.

There are few cases where scientists as a group have behaved immorally, the main example being the false claims of eugenics. As Robert Oppenheimer made clear in relation to the bomb, the duty of scientists is to understand how the world works; but how this knowledge is used ultimately lies, in a democracy, with the people’s elected representatives. Moreover, scientists rarely have power in relation to applications of science; this rests with those with the money – industry and government. The way scientific knowledge is used raises ethical issues for everyone involved, not just scientists.

Professor Lewis Wolpert.


Dear Lewis,

Thanks for your interesting letter. For you, science such as that involved in mapping the human genome is neutral, though not the use that is made of it by “those with the money – industry and government”. But scientists cannot live in a void: they must take into account the realities of the world they live in. And in today’s world it could not be more predictable that work on the genome project must lead to such things as the development of GM foods.

The position you take is very much that of the US gun lobby. While they actively supply an increasingly unstable American population with guns, they deny any responsibility for the use to which they are put.

For you, the philosophy of science is of no value. You appear not to be concerned about scientists working in a void. But the philosophy of science serves above all to relate scientific information to other forms of information such as that contained in a genome, an ecosystem or a society’s cultural pattern – which is essential in order to understand what science really is, and hence to make scientists aware of the social, ecological and moral implications of the work they do.

In my book The Way I document the moral ideas of leading Darwinians and neo-Darwinians. Though their views of evolution vary considerably, they all share the same fundamental beliefs, for instance that morality consists in building up objective scientific knowledge, that moral ideas have to be chosen rationally, that they have to be flexible and constantly changing, and above all that they must promote individualism rather than social values and ‘progress’. The basic underlying values of these biologists are thus indistinguishable, and I would argue, not by chance, from those of industrial mass society.

I do not accept your contention that there is “overwhelming evidence” for the neo-Darwinian thesis. Such “evidence” consists in noting that adaptation has occurred and then taking such adaptation as constituting evidence of natural selection at work.

On the subject of the Galapagos finches that so impressed Darwin, Michael Ruse writes,

“we find that all the different species show the effects of selection . . . peculiar characteristic after peculiar characteristic has some special adaptive function. . . There are beaks for cactus eating, beaks for insect eating on the wing . . . One species has even developed the ability to probe with twigs for insects in hollow parts of trees’.

In this passage, Ruse’s identification of selection with adaptation is quite explicit. The fact that Ruse is assuming what he set out to prove could not be more evident.

Many critics have noted that natural selection is little more than the biological version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – a fundamental belief of modern economists that serves to rationalise and hence legitimise today’s social and economic priorities. As for the “random changes” that you also believe in, what evidence is there that they are really random? How do you know that they are not part of an orderly pattern that you have not been able to identify? It was Lamarck who said,

“the word randomness only expresses our ignorance of causes.”

Edward Goldsmith.


Dear Edward,

There was nothing inevitable about genetics leading to GM foods until the techniques were developed in genetic research. And what is wrong with GM foods? In all the hysteria I have yet to read a single reasoned argument about the supposed dangers as compared to foods developed during the green revolution. Did you know that those foods were developed by irradiating plants with X-rays and then selecting the mutants for the desired properties? Are you happy with that approach? And do we not need new plants to feed the world’s increasing population?

Greenpeace and those like them are almost religious fundamentalists with no interest in evidence or science. Scientists who developed the genetic techniques for manipulating genes are not responsible for GM foods – that rests with the large and rich industrial companies. The techniques were developed in relation to pure research and cannot be compared to guns. It is worth noting that there are very few objects in the world that cannot be put to evil use – I could do terrible damage to you with my glasses. Please do not confuse knowledge with its application.

In a democracy we must all, through our government, take the responsibility for controlling any abuses and dangers. I fail to see why you should want to give so much power to scientists by allowing them to make ethical decisions about the applications of their work. They have neither the right nor the skills.

I cannot accept that the moral values of scientists have a significant influence on their scientific ideas. Scientists deal with the real world and if history were to be rerun, given enough scientists they will come up with the same ideas. DNA will still be the genetic material and water H2O, though both may be given different names. It is relativistic nonsense propagated by the sociologists of science that science is a social construction with particular validity, just another set of myths. If you really believe that then why bother about applications of science?

I have no strong views on how we should base our moral values but I am sure our evolutionary history plays a role. I am surprised at your rejection of Darwinism and your example is not persuasive; is not Ruse a philosopher? For evolution you should go to Maynard Smith, Bill Hamilton and Dawkins. I am a developmental biologist. Embryos are the key component in the evolution of animals and plants. The only thing that changes from generation to generation is the DNA inherited by the fertilised egg and this controls how the embryo develops. Changes in the DNA lead to changes in adult form and function and this is the material of natural selection acts – the fittest survive.

Surely you are not a Lamarckian – or do you have a hidden religious objection to Darwinism? Randomness is common in nature, the molecules in a gas move randomly as do those in a diffusing chemical in a liquid. It may well be true that certain changes in DNA are more likely than others – I am not an expert on that – but the fundamental principle is the same.

Drug resistance is a lovely example of bacterial evolution. It is also true that development puts a constraint on what can evolve – we could not by natural selection evolve wings like an angel, for example, but we could evolve an angelic disposition; this is due to the number of small changes in DNA required that could lead to forms and behaviours that could be selected for.

Lewis Wolpert.


Dear Lewis,

I too disagree with just about everything you say. Let’s face it our debate is above all a head-on conflict between two opposed and unreconcilable world views.

For a start you regard the opposition to GM foods as public “hysteria”. Sir Robert May, our Government’s chief scientist refers to Doctor Pusztai’s important work on the effects of GM potatoes on rats as “garbage”. Doctor William Bean insisted in the Archive of Internal Medicine in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s exposure of the intolerable effects of DDT was “so much hogwash”. Professor Lord Zuckerman, who in the early 1970s was also the British government’s chief scientist, referred to the Club of Rome’s Limits To Growth as “arbitrary speculation”, and “unscientific nonsense”.

My first reaction to these outbursts is that they don’t say much for ‘scientific neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’. They suggest instead that scientists like May, Bean, Zuckerman and yourself are little more than the priests of the modern cult of scientific progress, and that you feel duty-bound to discredit any heretics who dare suggest that this insidious process might not be entirely beneficial.

Like other members of your cult, you have swallowed the neo-Darwinian thesis hook line and sinker. As I have already pointed out, the “overwhelming evidence” that you refer to is based on the assumption that evolution and natural selection are synonymous. You reject the example I cite of this sleight of hand on the grounds that its author is a philosopher not a scientist. But Charlesworth is a scientist and he is equally guilty. He tells us that

“probably the most generally relevant prediction of the theory of natural selection is that episodes of rapid evolution should coincide with periods when the direction of selection is changing.”

Among the examples Charlesworth cites is that “insecticide resistance evolves in populations exposed to a new insecticide”. Quite true, but how does this prove that the resistance is the product of natural selection? Why for instance can it not equally be attributed to cognitive and metabolic changes that can eventually be fixed genetically and that are part of the adaptive stock-in-trade of the highly dynamic and creative creatures that mosquitoes, for example, are known to be? Does this latter interpretation not fit in very much better with the way mosquitoes have actually adapted to DDT?

I remind you that some mosquitoes simply learned not to alight on the walls of huts sprayed with DDT. Others developed a thick cuticle through which the DDT could not penetrate. Still others got much fatter so that the DDT could be sufficiently diluted, while others went so far as to develop an enzyme that broke down DDT into a perfectly harmless substance. Does natural selection provide a plausible explanation for these incredibly diverse and creative responses?

In any case, natural selection is a purely mechanistic process. Like the sorting of envelopes in a post office into two heaps – one for those to be posted (the fit), and the other for those to be returned to their senders (the unfit). The trouble is that envelopes don’t evolve. As Ludwig von Bertalanffy (like you a developmental biologist) noted,

“selection presupposes self-maintenance, adaptability, reproduction etc. of the living organism. These therefore cannot be the effects of selection.”

They can clearly only be the effects of a very much more sophisticated process.

This suggests that natural selection is generally accepted not because there is “overwhelming evidence” for it, but because it fits in so perfectly with our mechanistic and reductionistic world view in terms of which we see the natural world as random rather than orderly, and committed to perpetual change (progress) rather than overall stability.

Edward Goldsmith.


Dear Edward,

Yours is a very peculiar world view which you never make clear. There is no doubt that individual scientists have said things that are reprehensible and that they have been wrong but that in no way undermines the scientific enterprise. Science is the best way to understand the way the world works and Pusztai and others can and should be criticised on scientific grounds – the essence of science is peer review. Scientists are not a homogeneous group, they vary enormously in their views, and expertise.

It is of little use to insult the scientists you refer to as priests of a cult – if anything you are a bit cult-like with your holism and totally unsubstantiated rejection of evolutionary theory.

It is not a scientific argument to say that natural selection and genetic variation cannot account for the ability of mosquitoes to develop resistant strategies to DDT. You are a Lamarckian who believes that acquired characteristics can be inherited, and ignores the enormous evidence against this idea. I wonder if there is any science that you believe to be reliable and which you would trust or do you really think like some sociologists of science that it is just another religion, another set of myths.

Like you I care about the environment and it is only through a scientific understanding of nature that we will be able to protect it. For example, it is science that has warned us about ozone holes and global warming. That has to be important.

Lewis Wolpert.

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