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The Limits to Science

Science has immense potential for emancipation — but it must be rescued from its anti-democratic ideologues.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. Wikimedia

This article was originally published in Science for the People Vol. 16, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1984. Science for the People, a leading radical left-wing science publication that ran from 1970–1989, has seen a resurgence since 2014. Activists are planning a relaunch of the magazine, including republication of its complete archives, beginning later in 2018. For more information on Science for the People’s activities and archives, please visit their website.

For the great ideological “spokesmen” of science, from Francis Bacon onward, science has always been without limits; about “the effecting of all things possible.” Human curiosity, after all, is boundless. There seems to be an infinity of questions one can ask about nature. At the end of his long scientific career Isaac Newton felt, he said, as if he had merely stood at the edge of a vast sea, playing with the pebbles on the beach. What is more, because science is not merely about the passive knowledge of nature but about the development of ways of changing it, of transforming the world through technology, these same apologists offer us a breathtaking vision of the prospect of a world, a nature — including human nature — made over in humanity’s image to serve human needs.

It is only when one looks a little more closely at these visions that one sees that a science which claims to speak for the universality of the human condition, and to seek disinterestedly to make over the world for human need, is in fact speaking for a very precise group. Its universalism turns out to be a projection of the needs, curiosity, and ways of appreciating the world not of some classless, raceless, genderless humanity, but of a particular class, race, and gender who have been the makers of science and the framers of its questions indeed since Francis Bacon’s time.

The ideology is powerful, and in the second half of this century has been of endless fascination to politicians as well as scientists.

Towards the end of the Second World War, in the US, Vannevar Bush, whose life had been spent with “Pieces of the Action” of science, offered Presidents Roosevelt and Truman “Science, the Endless Frontier” as a vision of how the greatness and power of the US could be indefinitely extended. In Britain the visionary Marxist tradition of J.D. Bernal inspired Harold Wilson in 1964 to speak of the “building of socialism in the white heat of the scientific and technological revolution” which has, rather than politics and class struggle, become the motor of the growth of Soviet society.

Against such claims for the limitless nature of human curiosity and the techno-enthusiasms of the politicians, the anti-science movement of the last decades has cried a series of halts: halts to the “tampering with nature” of the nuclear industry and militarism; halts to the possibility of knowledge by the endless dissection of animals into molecules and molecules into elementary particles; halts to the restless experimentation implied by the very scientific method itself as a way of knowing the universe, as opposed to the contemplative knowledge offered by alternative philosophical systems.

I am not an anti-scientist in this, or indeed in any sense that I would accept. I want to argue, however, that we cannot understand science or speak of its limits or boundlessness in the abstract. To speak of “science for science’s sake” — as if, to paraphrase Samuel Butler on art, science had a “sake,” is to mystify what science is and what scientists do. This mystification, still often on the lips of the ideologues of science, serves to justify specific interests and privileges. Instead, we have to consider this science in this society. I shall argue that it is indeed limited, and that its limits are provided by a combination of two major factors. The first is material, the second ideological. I will consider each in turn.

Material Limits

The material factor is of course that of resource. Science costs money and, in the advanced industrial countries of Europe-East and West-and the US, consumes anything from 2-3 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP). From 1945 to the late 1960s, science was expanding at an enormous rate, an exponential growth with a doubling period of ten to fifteen years or so. A historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, pointed out that the doubling rate had been constant from about the seventeenth century on. It became fashionable in the 1960s to calculate that by the twenty-first century, every man, woman, child, and dog in the world would be a scientist and the mass of published research papers would exceed that of the earth. But like population growth, scientific growth could not continue unchecked.

Something had to stop, and indeed it did; from the late 1960s on, in most countries, the growth of science as a proportion of GNP slowed, halted, or was even, in Britain, reversed. More importantly, however, funding of science research is not merely limited: it is directed. Of the 2-3 percent of GNP Britain has spent on science since the 1950s, close to 50 percent, year in, year out, has gone to military research. The figure is now about 53 percent — the highest for many years, and much more, incidentally, than is spent by any other western country except the US — compare France’s 35 percent, Germany’s 12 percent, and Japan’s less than 5 percent. If you want to know why so much scientific endeavor is directed to military ends, you must ask political questions about how the decisions are made. But there can be no doubt that this concentration on directing research towards military needs, and towards the industrial priorities of production and profit, as Hilary Rose and I have described it, profoundly shapes the direction in which science goes.

Apologists for the purity of science (although it is the purest of high-energy physics that gave us the bomb) may argue that this is all technology — real science is unaffected by such directive processes. They are on shaky ground making this science/technology distinction, of course. The distinguished American organic chemist Louis Fieser invented that nastiest of conventional weapons, napalm, experimenting on it in the playing fields of Harvard during the 1939–45 war. He wrote about his discovery afterwards in a fascinating book called simply The Scientific Method. The argument that pure science is divorced from direction can’t be sustained for a moment.

Take the triumphant progress of molecular biology these past decades. There have always been two broadly contrasting traditions in biology, a reductionist, or analytic and atomizing one; and a holistic or more synthetic one. This latter tradition was strongly represented in the 1930s by such developmental and theoretical biologists as Needham, Woodger, and Waddington. There was a proposal to set up a major institute of theoretical biology in Cambridge which would have brought the field together. But the funding was to come from Rockefeller, and Rockefeller, under the guidance of Warren Weaver, decided that the future was to be chemical. They backed biochemistry and molecular biology instead. The double helix and all that followed from it from 1953 on was a direct result of that funding decision. Many people would argue it was a correct one, and I might well agree. The fact is that it changed the direction of biology by a deliberate act of policy. Rockefeller’s decision is thus comparable to those being made routinely by government and charitable funding agencies as they decide which high-priority areas to back, and which should not be supported. One of the things that is clear from that fact and from the combined efforts of Richard Nixon and Jim Watson in the 1970s to “cure” cancer by the end of the decade is that the most exquisite molecular biology has brought us no nearer to controlling cancer, a disease many of whose precipitating causes are located in the chemical environment of our industrial society. The vast funds Nixon allocated have given us more and more molecular biology, though.

Ideological Limits

Let me move from the material to the ideological limits to science. The point I want to make here is not just that we get the science we pay for, but that at a deeper level, what science we do, what questions scientists consider important and worth asking at any time — indeed, the very way they frame the questions — are profoundly shaped by the historical and social context in which we frame our hypotheses and realize our experiments. Let me spell this out at three levels.

First, we can only ask questions we can begin to frame; the role of chromosomes in cell replication and genetic transmission was unaskable until there were microscopes powerful enough to see the chromosomes, as well as a genetic theory to be tested — the technology and the theory came together at the beginning of the present century.

Second, not all scientific facts are of equal value. There is an infinity — in the strict sense of the term — of questions one can ask about the material world; which ones are relevant at all is strictly historically contingent. To give an example, in 1956 Sanger published the complete amino-acid sequence of a protein, the first time anyone had done it. It took him about ten years. That it was insulin, rather than any of the other 100,000 odd human proteins, or the thousands of millions of other naturally occurring proteins, was fortuitous. It happened to be a relatively small molecule and available pure and in bulk. Within a few years several other proteins were sequenced, each time to a great, but diminishing scientific fanfare. Today anyone can do it within a few weeks with an automated machine. But is anyone going to want to determine the structure of all naturally occurring proteins — or even all human ones? There is a law of diminishing returns, to all except stamp collectors, and sometimes, PhD students. So a new fact — the sequence of another protein — is nothing like as interesting as the first protein facts were. There’s a limit to how many such facts are wanted, and most protein sequencing projects are scarcely worth a research grant these days.

Third, and at a much deeper level than either of the two previous points, there is the issue of reductionism and its alternatives. The mode of thinking which has characterized the period of the rise of science from the seventeenth-century minds is a reductionist one. Reductionism holds that to understand the world requires disassembling it into its component parts, and that these parts are in some way more fundamental than the wholes they compose. To understand societies, you study individuals, to understand individuals you study their organs; for the organs, their cells; for the cells, their molecules; for the molecules, their atoms … right down to the most “fundamental” physical particles. Reductionism is committed to the claim that this is the scientific method, that ultimately the knowledge of the laws of motion of particles will enable us to understand the rise of capitalism, the nature of love, or even the winner of the next Derby.

The fallacies of such reductionism should be apparent. We cannot understand the music a tape recorder generates simply by analyzing the chemical and magnetic properties of the tape or the nature of the recording and playing heads — though these are part of any such explanation. Yet reductionism runs deep. For Richard Dawkins the well-springs of human motivation are to be interpreted by analysis of human DNA; for Jim Watson, “”What else is there but atoms?” The answer is: the organizing relations between the atoms, which are not strictly deducible from the properties of the atoms themselves. After all, quantum physics can’t even deal with the interactions of more than two particles simultaneously or predict the properties of a molecule as simple as water from the properties of its constituents. Beginning as a way of acquiring new and real knowledge about the world — from the structure of molecules to the motions of the planets — it has become an obstacle to scientific progress.

So long as science — in the questions it asks, and the answers it accepts — is couched in reductionist and determinist terms, understanding of complex phenomena is frustrated. A reductionist science, I believe, cannot advance knowledge of brain functions, or solve the riddle of the relationship between levels of description of phenomena such as the “mind-brain problem,” which Western science is almost incapable even of conceiving except in Cartesian dualist or mechanical materialist terms. Reductionism cannot cope with the open, richly interconnected systems of ecology, or with integrating its scientific understanding of the present frozen moment in time with the dynamic recognition that the present is part of a historical flux, be it of development of the individual or of evolution of the species.

Failing to approach the complexity of such systems, reductionism resorts to more or less vulgar simplifications which, in the prevailing social climate become refracted into defenses of the status quo in the form of biological determinism, which claims that the present social order, with all its inequalities in status, wealth, and power, between individuals, classes, genders, and races, is “given” inevitably by our genes.

The Question of Ethics

I want to conclude by referring to the one limit to science I have not yet mentioned, and that is the ethical one. Ethical issues in science have been repeatedly discussed in recent years. They take several forms. On the one hand, some claims have been made that certain types of knowledge are too dangerous for humanity in its present state, and therefore some types of experiments should not be made. For instance, nuclear power, or gene cloning are considered to present hazards which make it inappropriate to pursue them experimentally. Or, research on the so-called “genetic basis of intelligence” might reveal biological “facts” which would be unpalatable. On the other hand, it has been argued that the conduct of certain types of experiments, for instance, those which cause pain to animals, or for that matter to humans, contravene absolute moral principles and should not be performed. All of these considerations may be regarded as limiting science.

From what I have already said it should be apparent that I have a rather complicated response to that rather abstract approach to ethics. For me, the resource and ideological questions are paramount, and most ethical questions eventually break down to ones about priority and ideology. For instance, there has been a lot of attention given to the ethics of in vitro fertilization — should we or shouldn’t we? To me, the question seems wrongly posed; instead, one should ask the prior question, which the in vitro fertilization techniques are presumably designed to answer: how can we increase the number of wanted, healthy babies? If I ask that question, I also begin to ask what prevents wanted, healthy babies surviving. I note that there is a several-fold greater chance of a baby not surviving if it is born to a mother in poverty, or in the manual working class than if it is born to a wealthy or upper-middle class mother. And so if we want to save babies, I conclude, we can do so best by applying known social, economic, and health care improvements to deprived geographical areas, and classes. In vitro fertilization is a method which is of relevance to a small number of relatively privileged mothers. The language of priorities says that we shouldn’t get excited about that new set of techniques until we have addressed the question of how we save babies we know statistically will die from lack of application of quite simple preventive and health care measures.

That is an ethical question, but it is also one about politics and economics. Personally, I wouldn’t do research funded by, or with obvious applications to, the military. I will try to persuade as many of my fellow scientists as possible to take a similar ethical and political decision. But in the last analysis in a militarist society anything one does can be and potentially will be co-optable for military purposes. If we don’t want war-oriented research, individual ethical decisions are not enough. We need the political decision not to finance war research.

Similarly, I accept the case made by the animal liberationists that it is undesirable to use procedures likely to cause pain or distress to animals — though in the last analysis I owe my prior loyalty to my own species, and to argue otherwise seems perverse. I care more about saving people than saving whales. But a vast proportion of the animal experimentation done in Britain is either for relatively trivial commercial purposes — for instance, developing new drugs when it is at least arguable that there are enough or even too many drugs available already — when what is needed is not new magic drugs but a health-producing society. It is also true that a fair number of the animal experiments done in “basic science” labs are, on close analysis, carried out in the pursuit of trivial or “me-too”-type research aims. Remember that the average scientific paper is probably read by only one or two other people apart from the editor of the journal in which it appeared and the referees. So part of my answer to the question of ethics and animal experiments is to rephrase the question in terms of whether the research is worth doing anyhow, animals or no.

So too with the question of “things we’re not meant to know.” These are often just things it isn’t worth trying to know — like the sequence of every possible naturally occurring protein that I referred to earlier. But sometimes they are things which cannot be known because the questions are simply wrongly or meaninglessly phrased. As someone who has been involved in what has become known as the “race-IQ” debate I have often been asked whether I am opposed to work on “the genetics of average race differences in IQ” on ethical grounds. My response is that I am opposed to it on the same grounds that I am opposed to research on whether the backside of the moon is made of Gorgonzola or of Stilton. That is, it is a silly question, incapable of scientific answer, and actually, meaningless in a strict sense. The question makes grammatical, but not scientific sense, because “IQ” is not a phenotype susceptible to genetic measurements, and heritability estimates cannot be applied to average differences in phenotypes between groups.

All this is not to duck the question of ethics. There are issues of real choice and dilemma in medicine, in the use of animals, and indeed in some aspects of biotechnology, which cannot simply be reduced to issues of economics and ideology. They are few, but important, and they set limits to our science. How should they be resolved? In the last analysis, it seems to me, not by scientists playing god-in-white-coat and refusing to allow anyone else in on the decision, and not by committees of professional ethicists and philosophers. The only way of dealing with such issues is by democratic participation in the decision-making about what science is done. I believe that if we did organize our science in this way, not merely would new priorities set different limits to our work, but that we might also begin to see the makings of a new, less reductionist and more holistic, human-centered science.