Should People Believe What Scientists Say? Synopsis

Should People Believe What Scientists Say? Synopsis

The Problem of Elite Knowledge in a Democratic Society

Richard C. Lewontin

Alexander Agassiz Research Professor
Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University

The confrontation of expert knowledge, says eminent biologist Richard Lewontin, is a constant in the operation of a democratic society. Recalling Plato's distinction between the true knowledge of technicians and the arbitrary opinion of rhetoricians in Gorgias, Lewontin asserts that the modern form of 'techne' is science, an episteme that has gone far beyond practical concerns of "how to" to encompass the very question of how the world is made. Like Plato, the founding fathers of the United States privileged technical knowledge over rhetoric, and believed that the electorate should be educated in this tradition. What neither Plato nor the founding fathers could have anticipated, in Lewontin's view, is the current situation in which the immense apparatus of knowledge that we call scientific knowledge is available only to a restricted elite.

Lewontin argues that in spite of the need to understand science in order to make decisions in a democratic society, the general population is not equipped to do so. Since few read scientists' work directly, scientific knowledge is necessarily mediated. The educated scientific elite, operating as a social organization of a certain socio-economic class, calls on society for financial support, all the while maintaining significant autonomy as an organized group. Congress votes to give financial resources to scientific institutions; from there, peer reviews--scientists evaluating fellow scientists--determine allocations, creating what Lewontin calls a "democracy of the elite."

With respect to the content of scientific knowledge, there is much that cannot be understood because its claims can often be contradictory to what all our senses tell us. Neil Sporer has quipped, for example, that if you haven't been confused by quantum physics, then you haven't understood it. Similarly, string theory--which contemplates simultaneous movement in upward of ten dimensions--can only be understood as a series of elaborate metaphors. This inevitable reliance on metaphor is problematic, because it becomes difficult to parse which of its elements are fundamental to, and which should be stripped from, the concept it seeks to describe. This difficulty of metaphorical explanations is further compounded by their use as a simplifying tool (e.g., in textbooks), which can tend to result in the communication of accepted ideas at the expense of addressing important issues under debate.

All of this, Lewontin urges, should lead to a "healthy skepticism" about what scientists say.

First, the public should beware of universal statements. Fashionable since the time of Newton, who meant for his ideas to be universal laws, a universalist approach to knowledge has taken precedence over a systematic understanding of parts. Lewontin warns that there are no "laws" as such in biology, despite a few popular misnomers (e.g., Mendel's "laws"); even the law of all life from life must be contextualized as a truism of recent life since the advent of the universe.

Second, science faces the pressure of seeming relevant to human economic and political concerns. In order to convince the public of the merit of their investigations, scientists often adopt rhetoric that appeals to social sensibilities. War rhetoric, in particular, surfaces in connection with scientific pursuits as an important means of generating funds (e.g., the "war" on cancer). Likewise, "genomania"--the exaggerated focus on genetics as the ultimate determinant of human life--is not the invention of the media, but rather of scientists themselves. Lewontin argues that genotype does not specify the organism in the absence of a given environment; it is the environmental circumstance that finally determines the expression of the organism. Moreover, it is now believed that, somewhere between nature and nurture, a third and intermediary category of random "developmental noise" leading to idiosyncratic development must be added to the picture of how an organism comes into being.

Third, scientists don't want to take as part of their problematic things that they don't know how to do. They don't, for example, know how to approach the question of why people are living longer without explaining this phenomenon as an increase in life expectancy due to scientific advances, from immunizations to chemotherapy. Lewontin rejects this proposition, claiming that the respiratory diseases that principally plagued the nineteenth century slowly leveled off without overwhelming medical explanation. People are no longer dying from these same early causes of death, which has led to the facile conclusion that people are living longer, but Lewontin doesn't believe that science can actually claim responsibility for this longevity.

In short, scientists can do little more than construct "perfectly plausible stories" about how we came to be, but no more. Such explanations can be understood but cannot, by their very nature, be proven to be true. Our past is in the past; any attempt to reconstruct our history must be recognized as "sheer conjecture."

Returning to the separation between rhetoric and scientific knowledge, Lewontin observes how closely linked they are in contemporary society. Scientists form a cooperative enterprise among themselves and with the press to bring to the public what they want to say. Within this arrangement, there is little tolerance for the ambiguity inherent to the scientific process. A science reporter, for example, has no possibility of publishing a story that reports on uncertainty. When salaries and job security depend on publication, reporters will "go along with the game" of telling what scientists want them to tell. Plato's de facto distinction between scientists and politicians has, in effect, broken down.

Is there any remedy for this predicament? Lewontin calls on science teachers to reject textbooks that do not tell important truths and to allow science to be as complicated and sophisticated for their students as it is by nature. Scientists, he reiterates, often "magnify and dramatize" their findings in order to procure funds. They are, after all, "social organisms" with social, emotional, and financial needs to pursue their research. Lewontin calls on individuals to resist the temptation of believing scientific claims that "given enough time and money, we will know 'x,'" if only because of the average life-span of mammalian species. Why, Lewontin asks, should humans be exempt from the only law of nature we know aside from "all life from life," namely, the law of extinction? There is much we won't know, Lewontin concludes. Knowing this, he cautions us to "be skeptical, always be skeptical."