Modern science developed from an ethic of modesty and doubt. Scientific conclusions are always tentative, and liable to be overturned by the next finding. Predictions must be verifiable – or, in Karl Popper’s term, falsifiable. Unless a proposition can be empirically proven wrong, it isn’t science.
Thus “splitting the core of a hydrogen atom will release x amount of energy” is a scientific prediction, while “God will punish us because we have sinned” is not. The need for finely detailed falsifiable propositions is the reason mathematics has become important to science. Saying “lots” or “sort of” isn’t good enough.
The explanatory power of scientific predictions have bestowed enormous prestige on scientists. Alexander Pope rhapsodized, “God said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.” Newton himself knew better. “If I have seen further than others,” he observed, “it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And in fact, many aspects of the Newtonian universe were overthrown by Einsteinian relativity – which, in turn, was thrown into confusion by quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
In recent years, a troubling change has taken place in the way scientists speak about the future. According to this article in The Scientist (via A&E), predictions have become bolder, more extreme, less falsifiable. Lines of scientific research – gene therapy, stem cell cures, cloning technology – get wildly oversold. Scientific modesty fades into exaggerated promise, and promise into prophecy. Future disasters are foretold with a visionary urgency rather than calm, qualified hypothesizing.
Among the false prophets cited by the article, Paul Ehrlich, possibly the wrongest man in the history of the species, takes rightful pride of place. His most famous visionary failure was in The Population Bomb (1968): “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death,” Ehrlich fulminated, “in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
A more recent doomsday scenario – still pending, but already bizarre – has Sir Martin Rees, astronomer and president of the Royal Society, predicting that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.” Given Rees’ anxiety about bioterror and environmental catastrophes, his apocalyptic vision is really the equivalent of “God will punish us because we have sinned.”
On the over-optimistic side, in 2005 Hwang Woo-Suk claimed his therapeutic cloning would cure spinal injuries, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and practically the common cold. South Korea felt so proud of its miracle-worker that it ran off a postage stamp showing a man leaping out of his wheelchair. At the time, nothing had been demonstrated – no cures, no miracles, no raising up of the lame. Nothing would be demonstrated, because Hwang, it turned out, was a fraud who fabricated the evidence in his papers and took credit for results he had never achieved.
The reasons offered by the article are not noble. Most involve cold hard cash. If you say “The world will end unless you fund my project,” that sounds more persuasive than “There’s a chance this may help, though not for many years.” The same principle applies to those who over-promise: if you are near to making the lame walk, it would be morally depraved, if not criminal, to give you less money than you demand.
Lust for fame is another factor – whether to get published and so advance one’s career, win political influence, or achieve celebrity status, with one’s name on a postage stamp.
The most consequential reason for pretending to knowledge of the future is power. Dazed and confused politicians, the article maintains, increasingly “fob off responsibility to scientists” for tough policy calls. The examples given are climate change and the threat of pandemic diseases. Here the vast prestige of science is borrowed to achieve a partisan political goal – in effect, to silence political debate on an issue of public, not merely technical, interest.
In this way, the scientist evolves from false prophet to Platonic guardian – a person whose superior knowledge trumps the messy democratic process. And while guardianship may be thrust on the scientist by irresponsible politicians, many have embraced, relished, and ultimately demanded, this rather pleasant role – telling the rest of us how to live.
Let’s put all this in perspective.
There has always been greed among scientists. There has always been ambition, including the political kind. Newton, as head of the Royal Mint, reformed English currency. Einstein persuaded President Roosevelt to build the atom bomb. These were not modest, retiring personalities, but oversize egos to match oversize talents.
Scientific modesty is not a personal trait but a form of integrity. Modern science built a culture of clarity and specialization. When scientists spoke as scientists, they spoke clearly, in mathematical detail, and with authority. When they voiced opinions on other matters – which they did rarely – they claimed no special knowledge. The culture of science was thus based on self-command, and it is that culture, and this self-command, which appear to be in decadence:
“Since the late 20th century, scientists no longer quite have that quality that we used to speak of as scientists being disinterested. They are now very interested,” says Hilary Rose, professor emerita of the sociology of science at the University of Bradford, UK and Gresham College London. “Many clearly manage to rise above this, but the basic culture of science has changed.”