Perutz rubbishes Popper and Kuhn

November 25, 1994

Max Perutz, the Nobel prize-winning chemist, yesterday attacked the theories of science proposed by philosophers Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, dismissing them as being applicable "to only a few scientific activities".

Giving a lecture in Cambridge on "Living Molecules", he said he was concerned by the enormous authority that has been attached to these theories.

He explained that for Popper, scientists formulate hypotheses and then devise experiments to falsify them. Even if the experiments fail to falsify, they can never be proved since a future experiment might yet falsify them. Dr Perutz said: "Logically, this is true in principle but it rarely happens in practice."

And for Kuhn, science is dominated by a succession of paradigms such as Newtonian celestial mechanics which were modified by relativity.

Dr Perutz, founder and former chairman of the Medical Research Council's laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge, said: "While hypotheses in cosmology may be subject to revision, most of those in molecular biology are cast-iron. Nor did many of us begin with hypotheses." He said that Fred Sanger, for example, won the Nobel prize for chemistry twice by inventing methods. "He had no hypotheses of what he was going to find, but once determined, his results were not subject to revision. They are final and the same is true for the bulk of scientific knowledge. If it were not, jet planes could not fly, computers would not work and atomic bombs would not explode."

He criticised the social sciences for teaching students that scientific results were subjective. "They are taught that all scientific know-ledge is preliminary and conditioned by the social and cultural pressures to which scientists happen to be subjected."

In the hands of social scientists, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is but an expression of the cut-throat 19th-century capitalism of his time. Science is also alleged to be dominated by cliques who try to impose their paradigms on society: "This is a caricature of modern science yet it represents what future teachers, civil servants, journalists and politicians are taught."

He also criticised those scientists who he believes are attacking religion, focussing in particular on the pronouncements of biologist Richard Dawkins.

Dr Perutz, said: "It is one thing for scientists to oppose creationism which is demonstrably false but quite another to make pronouncements which offend people's religious faith -- that is a form of tactlessness which merely brings science into disrepute. My view of religion and ethics is simple: even if we do not believe in God, we should try to live as though we did."

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