Champions of conscience

December 21, 2001

Truth and human rights are thrust ahead of personal ambition in a community that hails heretics as heroes, argues John Polanyi.

Science denotes knowledge from observation of the outside world. Conscience is the knowledge we carry within us. The type of knowing that we call science is inevitably linked to the type we call conscience. Our observations of the outside world can be transmitted only to one place, which is to our minds, where conscience resides.

Scientists are human, but it is true that in the interests of objectivity, we try to separate what we see from what we know. We do not want to paint elm trees in a landscape dominated by eucalyptus, like the early painters in Australia, whose training was in England. At the same time, we know that, without our inner compass, we cannot hope to navigate the outer world. We have no choice but to bring our science into touch with our conscience.

Indeed, science is itself a cultural activity akin to painting. A painter makes a record of nature. So does a scientist. In doing so, both are engaged in making statements about the world they see.

In their quest for patterns, scientists have been sketching nature in recent times to such effect that they have transformed the accepted view of matter, energy, space, life, death and the universe. Through this, they have reshaped the world we live in, extending and enriching human life and, at the same time, furnishing the ultimate machinery of death. There has never before been a renaissance that so fundamentally and so speedily transformed the world.

Happily, the nature of the transformation has been the opposite of that predicted by the past century's major prophets, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Rather than the individual becoming the prisoner of technology, it is the tyrants who are being imprisoned and the people who are being freed as, one by one, the borders that divide them erode. This is not to say that equity and tranquillity prevail, only that the need for both has never been more evident.

Because of the power of science to change our world, many look for magic in it. They call this "scientific proof" and think of it as incontrovertible. Happily for mankind there is no such thing. There is always room for doubt. It is the achievement of consensus that is the best test we have of truth. This is the moment at which we judge that a scientific proposition has been "proven".

The achievement of that consensus is made possible by the fact that we respect not only our own experience but also that of others. We arrive at an agreement as to the nature of creation on the basis of values we hold in common. "This," we say after long debate, "is how it is." This fits what we know.

To move with assurance from science to conscience it is necessary to take a closer look at the scientific community that makes this judgement. One thing distinguishing it is the fact that it is international. But what makes it function as a community is its ethic. It has a shared ideal, which is to put the truth ahead of personal advantage.

Any scientist who does not believe that objectivity, to the extent that it can be achieved, takes precedence over self-advancement does not belong in science. If a scientist puts such unethical ideas into action by, for example, falsifying data, he or she is banished from the community forever.

This commitment to truth is also a commitment to the tenets we call human rights. For truth, being no monopoly of one race, religion or nationality, is open to all and deserves our respect from whomever it comes. Moreover, devotion to truth is the commitment to an endless journey, every step of which we must be willing to tolerate dissent, for it is dissenters who will point the way ahead. What I am describing is, in fact, the functioning of a democratic society.

From the acknowledgement of human rights, which lies at the heart of a democratic society, there should flow a sense of responsibility to safeguard those rights. As individual responsibility has flowered in society over past decades, so it has among scientists. It is no longer considered ethical to don a white coat and lead a life of monastic devotion to one's calling. Scientists are citizens. Better yet, they are global citizens.

What is it, then, that scientists have to offer as citizens? They are numerate, and they are literate. They belong to an international community with a commitment to objectivity and with bonds of trust. They do not have a certain path of truth and they are not all-wise. But through their profession, scientists are bound by an ethic that makes them valued citizens.

The remarkable community to which scientists belong is a real community with leaders, laws, fellowships and history. Amazingly, it has held together for centuries without formal government, without inherited privilege and without violence, police or prisons. It is sufficiently tolerant to invite dissent. Its heretics are not burnt at the stake, but hailed as heroes.

Marx looked forward to the withering away of the state. Our community, when it functions, approximates this ideal; a society held together not by formal structures but by the civic sense of its members.

Ambition is a driving force, but it has been harnessed to a shared goal. That goal is not a venal or a cruel one, but the humane goal of understanding. If the society of science could, through example, give humans this as their common destiny, it would have made its greatest gift to mankind.

John Polanyi was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1986.

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