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On Science, Politics and God

Winter 2011 Tête À Tête

On Science, Politics and God

GB discusses the scientific method and new-century political science with one of the world’s great philosopher-chemists

GB: Will the next 15 to 20 years in international science be the years of physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics?

JP: I think that most people would say that biology is central, but this is a concert that is being played around the world with all of the instruments contributing. Therefore, if you were to simply cut off progress in the others, then the biological sciences would wilt as well. The bit of history that all scientists know is that, in the early 20th century, an informal survey was made by leading figures to establish where science was headed, and they collectively decided that science had come to an end; that is, that everything worth knowing was already known. Then came quantum mechanics; and then, of course, relativity. So you see how poor our predictive abilities are, and that is because our imaginations are feeble. So we constantly surprise ourselves.

GB: What are the intersections, in this new century, between the scientific world and what happens in the public space?

JP: There are two ways of reading this question. One is the role of politics in guiding the progress of science and technology. And then there is the reverse dynamic: how science shapes public policy. Let me treat each in turn. The body politic represented by the bureaucracy would like to manage science to a high degree. In many countries, this bureaucratic intervention is in danger of damaging science by attempting to guide the ideas of science – basic science – whereas what you can more legitimately guide is the applications side of science; that is, the technology. If you try to guide basic science toward beneficial applications, what you tend to do is get in the way of the element of surprise – the most important aspect of basic science. It is the essential characteristic of a discovery that it causes you to be surprised. If the bureaucracy says, “surprise me by doing such and such because I think that this will be useful,” what you actually do is replace the scientist’s ability to use imagination with the government’s own list of less imaginative priorities. There is an example that is worth bearing in mind in this regard: in 1937, the National Academy of Science in the US, which is the reigning body of pundits in the scientific community, was asked to say which technologies were going to be the most vital to develop. This is just the sort of question that politics has to ask itself when looking in the direction of science. They came up with the answer that agriculture clearly was a vital area in which to do research; that synthetic gasoline was very important because we were going to run out of fuel; and also synthetic rubber because rubber was increasingly a vital material. That was the extent of their list. Of course, within a very few years, new inventions of which they had never even conceived came online – first in basic science, and then in applied science. For instance, the Academy did not look at nuclear energy, to say nothing of nuclear weapons. Or jet engines. Or computers. Or satellites. And all of these things were brought online a very few years down the road. So if you were to try, as we do, to control basic science on the basis of anticipated useful technologies, you do harm. And that is what we are doing in many cases, and in many countries.

GB: And the reverse – the relationship of the scientific community to the political class?

JP: Scientists are only slowly realizing their responsibility in respect of public policy. They are doing this most in the US, where scientists do advise the political class to a considerable extent. In Canada, this is much less the case. What is needed is a realization on the part of scientists, first of all, that they belong to a non-governmental organization that is potentially very influential, and that they therefore have a heavy responsibility. The scientific community is an international one, whose members know each other well, and who, to some extent, trust and depend on one another. This is an important NGO, and it should exert itself much more than it does to pay a tithe on its professional privileges. I was arguing a moment ago that the scientific community needs freedom to succeed. But with freedom comes a concomitant responsibility. We need to set aside a fraction of our time for the political space – we scientists who are competing like mad to perform at an international standard in science. We have to accept the obligation, and indeed the handicap, of paying attention to public affairs. We must be more knowledgeable in this realm, and more vocal.

GB: In which countries, apart from the US, does the scientific community play a robust advisory role?

JP: After the US comes Britain, because the Royal Society, having been founded in 1660, has had a long time to realize that it is an NGO, and that it has to get together not just its membership, but the very best people that it can find to address the colossal problems that we are facing in the applied sector. Obviously, there are risks in this regard because you have to go beyond your narrow professional expertise. You have to be willing to bring to bear your own values. How important is it to you, for instance, that people not starve in a distant place? This sort of consideration factors into any advice that you give. You do not just give a table of numbers; you give a recommendation. In Britain, this is done quite well, given the size of the country. In the US, it is even better organized. In Canada, we are only beginning to tap our scientific talent so as to address questions of public policy.

GB: Do you see a migration in the nucleus of cutting-edge science and scientific culture toward Asia by the middle of this century?

JP: Yes, I see it readily. In China, for instance, there has been a tremendous and deliberate spurt forward in the ambitions of the scientists and in the freedom of the scientists to tackle things for which the government does not necessarily see any specific reason. This, as mentioned, is critical to success. If the Asians – particularly the Chinese – are going to be players on the international scene, they ought to be contributing, whether or not governments can see the value of specific endeavours in basic science. The aim is not to be the best in China, but the best in the world. They have not achieved this yet. Their only Nobel Prize to date was given to somebody who is in prison – Liu Xiaobo. I chide them with something that they do not wish to hear: that you cannot have the necessary international level of free and civilized behaviour in science if you construct a wall around thinking. They have already encountered this contradiction in their economy, and they are also going to encounter it big-time in their science.

GB: Do you see advanced science as a prerequisite for good governance or, conversely, good governance as a prerequisite for advanced science?

JP: The latter. The extreme examples would be the Nazi perversion of science, because their ideology foisted on scientists false notions of genetics. Curiously, Soviet Russia did the same thing in the same field, from a different slant. Marxism had its implications for the denial of modern genetics. In both regimes, this resulted in a restriction of the freedom of scientists. This is understating it, for scientists were living in a state of terror. This is not the current state of things in China, but down the road they are going to realize that political reform will be key to the full flowering of Chinese science.

GB: Could one not argue, nonetheless, that the Soviet Union had terrific scientists?

JP: The Soviet Union would have had even more terrific scientists if it had been politically free. I used to go to international scientific meetings in the USSR. The first part of every Soviet scientific paper referred to “Our Leader and Teacher,” and how he, Stalin, had inspired the work in question. We are all, of course, forced to tell some lies at the beginning of our papers; that is, we say that we are going to solve all of the world’s problems, and then go on and try to solve a much more delimited scientific problem. But Soviet scientists had to tell even more damaging lies at the beginning of every scientific paper, and that was a severe handicap.

GB: Do you believe today’s political leaders to be scientifically literate?

JP: Much more than in the past – largely due to the birth of scientific journalism. There are all sorts of avenues being used to try to make people around the world more scientifically literate. But this is still work in progress. It used to be a matter of pride among those who had a classical education to deny knowledge of science; that is, they hoped that they would be applauded for having the ‘right’ values. That time has passed. Science today, I think, is being seen as a creative endeavour in common with other creative endeavours. That is why I bridle when invited to predict what the major achievements of science will be in, say, 15 years or so. My rejoinder would be, “First, you tell me what is going to happen in literature, painting and music in 15 years.”

GB: What is still lacking in the literacy of our political class?

JP: What is lacking is a clear understanding of the difference between basic and applied science. This is proving to be a very hard thing to get across. I am going to put it strongly, but not too strongly. What the basic scientist is engaged in doing is coining new terms. That is why, when you have a new idea, you attach a new name to it; this goes on in every scientist’s laboratory. People are very careful about letting scientists introduce new terms, but new terms are necessary as genuinely new concepts are born. We in basic science are, therefore, engaged in producing the language that will be used in the world of applied science to address the daunting problems that we have. But if you ask the people who are producing the vocabulary to tell you, first, what new words are going to appear in the next 15 years, and second, what new sentences the applied sciences are going to utter using those new words, this is an impossibility. The new vocabulary is capable of being composed into a mass of different important sentences, capable of changing the world. Moreover, a new application does not come from a single advance in basic science. It occurs at the unforeseeable confluence of new developments in basic science. This is a crucial thing that we have to explain to people – that we need to give basic science the freedom to flourish; the freedom to surprise us.

GB: Does scientific progress heal the world?

JP Science is a particular language. You can say appalling things in that language: the Nazis did, as have others. And you can say wonderful things in that language. And so it is absolutely necessary to have a language, but you need something additional in order to make sure that the language will be beneficent. That part of the calculation comes in at the applied science end, drawing on our values as a society. However, when you are developing language – at the basic science end – you cannot insist that people invent words that can only be used to say nice things.

GB: What do you think should be the relationship between science and spirituality? Or between science and religion in general?

JP That is taking care of itself as history unfolds. Scientists certainly believe that the world around them makes sense, and they proceed on that basis. They have nothing except some inner well of faith to make them think so. It could well be that the world is not intended to make sense at all to the species to which we belong. Yet, we scientists are all willing to gamble our lives on the proposition that there is a comprehensible narrative. There is, clearly, a colossal element of faith in the sciences. If you want to speak of religion among scientists, then the pervasive one is the religion of Albert Einstein, who said that he was an atheist, and yet declared that he was trying to read the mind of God. If we speak of religion as it concerns scriptural testaments and revelations of truth, then I see this as a waning force among scientists.

GB: Da Vinci or Gandhi? Who was the more important genius for humanity, and of whom would you like to see more in coming decades?

JP: Obviously, I want them both. The inventor is Da Vinci, but he burst the bounds of any particular field. He was an inventor in the most creative sense because he was also an artist of the first order, and therefore a basic scientist. And the other, Gandhi, the idealist, was willing to go beyond idealism because he was trying to be a politician at the same time. But they do represent different things, and we need both. When I used to travel in India in the 1960s – still the India of Mahatma Gandhi – I was conscious of the paradoxical fact that there was a great appetite in that country to learn about nuclear weapons, and indeed to possess weapons of mass destruction. The country of Mahatma Gandhi is today tempted at times to threaten pre-emptive war against its neighbour Pakistan. Pakistan, for its part, threatens war right back. So, clearly, Gandhi’s idealism was not itself sufficient to guarantee the well-being of the region.

GB: What should be the relationship between mankind and the physical environment in this new century?

JP: The globe has shrunk to the point that everything that we do impacts our ability to survive as a species. The environment as an autonomous entity is less and less present. Everyone with a basic education today understands this. If we can find a modus vivendi for the human species on Earth – even if in sub-optimal form – then that will be a tremendous triumph. We all pray for that. We will need also to work for it, in a new spirit of compromise. In this, the NGO that is science must play its part.


John Polanyi is a Professor of Chemistry and Nobel Laureate at the University of Toronto, where his scientific work is on the molecular motions underlying chemical reaction. He has written extensively on science policy and the control of armaments.

(Photograph: Zoran Milich)

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