Enemies of Promise

Article excerpt

We live in an age of scientific triumph. Science has solved many of nature's puzzles and greatly enlarged human knowledge. And the fruits of scientific inquiry have vastly improved human welfare. Yet despite these proud achievements, science today is increasingly mistrusted and under attack.

Some of the opposition to science comes from familiar sources, including religious zealots who relentlessly press for the mandatory teaching of creationism in the public schools. It is discouraging to think that more than a century after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), and 70 years after the Scopes trial dramatized the issue, the same battles must still be fought. But fight them we must.

Other antagonists of science are less familiar. Strange though it may seem, there is within academe a school of thought that considers science to be wholly fraudulent as a way of knowing. According to these "postmodernists," the supposedly objective truths of science are in reality all "socially constructed fictions," no more than "useful myths," and science itself is "politics by other means." Anyone with a working knowledge of science, anyone who looks at the natural world with an honest eye, should recognize all of this for what it is: errant nonsense.

Science, of course, is not the exclusive source of knowledge about human existence. Literature, art, philosophy, history, and religion all have their insights to offer into the human condition. To deny that is scientism--the belief that the methods of the natural sciences are the only means of obtaining knowledge. And to the extent that scientists have at times indulged in that belief, they must shoulder some of the blame for the misapprehensions that some people have about science.

But science does have something inimitable to offer humankind: it is, in the words of physician-author Lewis Thomas, "the best way to learn how the world works." A postmodernist poet of my acquaintance complains that it is in the nature of science to break things apart, thereby destroying the "mysterious whole." But we scientists take things apart in order to understand the whole, to solve the mystery--an enterprise that we regard as one of the great, ennobling tasks of humankind.

In the academic medical center where I work, the efficacy and benefits of science are a daily reality. So when I first encountered the postmodernist view of science some years ago, I dismissed it as either a strategy for advancement in parochial precincts of the academy or a display of ignorance. But now I am alarmed because the postmodernist cry has been joined, outside the academy, by other strong voices raised against science.

Consider these lines from Vaclav Havel, the widely admired Czech writer and statesman, who has vigorously expressed his disenchantment with the ethos of science: "Modern rationalism and modern science ... now systematically leave [the natural world] behind, deny it, degrade and defame it--and, of course, at the same time, colonize it."

Those are angry words, even if their precise meaning is elusive. And anger is evident, too, in Havel's main conclusion: "This era [of science and rationalism] has reached the end of its potential, the point beyond which the abyss begins."

Even some influential men who know science well and who have been good friends to it in the past have joined in the chorus of criticism and doubt. Thanks in part to Havel's ruminations, Representative George E. Brown, Jr. (D.-Calif.), who was trained as a physicist, reports that his faith in science has been shaken. He complains of what he calls a "knowledge paradox": an expansion of fundamental knowledge accompanied by an increase in social problems. He implies that it shouldn't be that way, that as science progresses, the problems of society should diminish. And he suggests that Congress and the "consumers" of scientific research may have to take more of a hand in determining how science is conducted, in what research gets funded. …