PUBIC AFFAIRS, USING SCIENCE

 

'In Praise of Science's 'Idealistic Tendencies.' The Toronto Star, February 13, 1997.

The following is excerpted from an address on "Using the power of science," by Nobel laureate John Polanyi, a professor of Chemistry a the University of Toronto. It was delivered last week to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Alfred Nobel left the bulk of his fortune to endow some prizes. He was an explosives manufacturer whose global business had been vastly successful. He would have fitted in at the World Economic Forum.

How impressive, then, to discover what it was in science that Nobel most valued. In his will, he stipulated that his prizes be awarded for work exhibiting (as the Swedish text put it) idealisk rigtning—idealistic tendencies.

Of the 2,000 businessmen, politicians and scientists gathered at the World Economic Forum, how many would claim to value science, principally, for its "idealistic tendencies?" Few. I shall, nonetheless, argue that Nobel was right in his evaluation.

Science has, of course, benefited us materially. It has lengthened our lives. It has enriched our existence by teaching us about ourselves. But its greatest gift is the ideals that lie at the heart of its success.

The ideals of science are to be found in the shared commitment of scientists to truth. All else, such as personal ambition or parochial loyalty, are secondary. The truth of a scientific proposition is not judged by scientists according to the race, religion, nationality, class, color or gender of the individual who advances it. It is this respect for the truth that makes a science a civilized and civilizing pursuit.

Of course, the primacy of truth is not unique to science. The same values underlie civilized debate in every walk of life. What makes it so important that these ideals lie at the centre of science, is that science itself is central to our age.

That is why, for example, throughout the bleakest years of Stalinism, the Soviet Academy of Science was able to maintain a measure of independence of the state. The integrity of the enterprise of science was too precious to destroy.

In the wake of Stalin's death, Khrushchev spoke of the need to rebuild Soviet society on the basis of truth. Among the first to answer that call were the scientists, most notably the physicist Andrei Sakharov who, arguably, contributed as much to the collapse of communism as did Mikhail Gorbachev, to whom he acted as a gadfly.

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. was a defeat of comparable importance to the ending of the Napoleonic wars. One wonders, therefore, at the source of Sakharov's political influence. Joseph Stalin is alleged to have asked, dismissively, "How many divisions has the Pope?" Sakharov did not even have the Swiss Guard. His power derived from the same source as that of the Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, whose gentle but persistent questioning of the legitimacy of the present Chinese leadership set the stage for the protests of June, 1989, in Tiananmen Square. The government of China awarded the (by then) fugitive Dr. Fang the highest recognition in their gift; top place on their Most Wanted list.

I am underscoring the existence of an important international group with shared ideals—the scientific community. It is a potentially powerful non-governmental force; an NGO for the future.

This is not a new thought. For 40 years the existence of international links of acquaintance and trust among scientists has been exploited as a means to communication among political contestants. The success of this undertaking, as conducted till now, was acknowledged in 1995 by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Pugwash Conferences; conferences in which international groups of scientists discuss world affairs.

I believe that this approach offers unrealized opportunities, and corresponding obligations, for the future. In Pugwash discussions, till now, technical problems have headed the agenda: questions having to do with weapons, with global resources, and with pollution. This is important and fitting. But it is not enough. It falls short of covering the range of topics suggested by scientists' shared values.

Scientists belong to a community dependent on the free expression of minority views. They should, therefore, be heard insisting on the observance of these freedoms wherever in the world they meet. They too seldom do so.

There is an additional category of activity to which scientists should devote themselves more than they do; the fostering of democratic institutions. . .

The "idealistic tendencies" that Alfred Nobel, the businessman, so valued in science are as sorely needed as ever. Scientists have only begun the task of building on them.

Theirs is not a unique responsibility. Other international communities must play their part. One thinks of the global business community, in the process of developing a shared ethic at World Economic Forums. Business, too, must learn to articulate its ideals, and then to act in support of them worldwide.

 
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