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ESSAY ~ ~ Valence and Scientists from the Publics Perspective ``The eras of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can at kr~ow. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right' but he carrot know whether he is killed because of the krlowlledge which he has got or because of the know1ledge which he hasn't got arid which if he had it, would save him.7' Robert Penn Warren All the King7s Men When scientists confront the dilemma posed by Robert Penn Warren, they tend to respond optimistically, says Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. "We believe that the acquisition of new knowledge is both wondrous and good. We also believe that the quest for better comprehension is a fundamental human trait, one which sets Homo sapiens apart from other living species. We reinforce this belief by a conviction that original research is a creative endeavor, linked to artistic and literary creativity in method and talent. And we believe that these last considerations say that science is a thoroughly human enterprise, that through science we are expressing human as well as humane values." But the public's perception of science can be ambivalent and often pes- simistic, Singer acknowledges. "For the most part, nonscientists find the continuing quest for knowledge somewhat frightening," she says. To some extent, this fear extends even to scientists. "Often at Washington cocktail parties, where everyone asks strangers, 'What do you do?' I find that the answer 'molecular biologist' is likely to drive the questioner to the far end of the room." The same attitude surfaces in the popular media. In television shows and best-selling books, scientists are often depicted as "frightening' usually unsympathetic, almost inhuman." Despite these widespread impressions, Singer does not believe that the public's view of science is totally negative. Public attitudes are too numerous, diverse, and at times contradictory to characterize one-sidedly. People are eager to make use of the fruits of scientific research, and many avidly follow 28

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reports of scientific developments. Biologists and other scientists have also devoted considerable time in recent years to explaining their work to the public. Partly as a result, Singer notes, over 50 percent of all Americans say that they know what DNA is. But the tension between the acquisition of new knowledge and the fear of that knowledge remains widespread in society. It is a troubling tension to - - 1 1 1 , v scientists, Linger believes, because scientists in the United States rely on the public for support. On a purely financial level, the majority of scientific research is paid for with public funds. And more broadly, in a democracy, scientific work on controversial subjects can be slowed or halted by public opposition, even if engendered by unwarranted fears. The Uses of Knowledge Scientists are well aware of the ambivalence with which the public views their work. One sign of this awareness is the social contract through which scientists solicit funds for research. While scientists pursue knowleclge, the public can gain from that knowledge new treatments for disease, for in- stance, or agricultural improvements. Current plans to map and sequence the human genome are a good example. One set of rationales for such a project speak of an increased understanding of disease, development of new thera- peutic agents, and heightened international competitiveness. But any such benefits will be built on a new base of knowledge about the structure and functioning of DNA. Where is nothing wrong with these honest arguments" about the practical benefits of science, Singer says. Scientists want to make the world a better place; for some, that may be their primary motivation. But the fundamental purpose of science is to learn more about the world. The public's ambivalence toward science also emerges in other ways. For instance, new scientific discoveries and their implications are extensively covered by the media. Indeed, we often read of new discoveries first in the press and only later in journals," Singer points out. But the press also devotes considerable time to scientific controversies that most scientists consider relatively minor or beside the point. Transgressions of scientific standards, whether substantial or insignificant, become front-page news. The views of a small minority may be presented as a counterpoint to widely held scientific outlooks, giving the minority viewpoints a credence that they do not deserve. The public's apprehension over new knowledge can be particularly acute in biology. Biology seeks to describe the fundamental nature of human beings, offering a self-knowledge that is not always reassuring. The increasing ability of biologists to manipulate biological systems also is heightening the impact of biology on the modern world. THE PUBLIC'S PERSPECTIVE 29

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Science and Myth Much of the public's unease over scientific advances arises because of the way in which science can conflict with long-standing premises, explanations, and authorities, Singer contends. In many cases, scientific explanations of natural phenomena are becoming available where mythologic explanations have traditionally held sway. These conflicting viewpoints influence public debate in a number of ways. An obvious example is the continuing debate over the teaching of evolution. Modern genetics fully supports the conclusions of evolutionary biologists that human beings evolved from earlier forms of life. Nevertheless, surveys show that over half of all Americans think that biblical creation myths should be taught in science curricula in American schools, even though mainstream religious leaders do not support this view. `'Thus it is not only religious fundamentalists who prohibit us from ending this debate," Singer maintains. Another example comes from the prospect of human gene therapy. In a recent poll, when gene therapy was presented as a means of curing fatal diseases and preventing inherited birth defects, 84 percent of the respondents were in favor of it. But many of this same group also, and inconsistently, said that it was morally wrong to tamper with the genetic code of humans. Ideas about the origins of disease also reveal the gap between scientific and mythologic explanations of events. Some people in the United States, for instance, believe that AIDS is a form of divine retribution against homosexuals and drug abusers. In this, they echo the views of John Woolman, a prominent American thinker in the 1700s, who wrote, "I have looked on the Smallpox as a messenger sent from the Almighty, to be an assistant in the cause of virtue." "One cannot help but wonder," Singer responds, "how Woolman would have reacted to the recent worldwide eradication of the Almighty's messenger. " Replacing mythologic explanations with scientific ones `'wil1 be a difficult job," according to Singer. Many myths are associated with accepted author- ities, such as religion, or with unquestioned assumptions, such as the in- violability of nature. Myth tends to be seen as human, Singer says. Science tennis to be seen as inhuman. A Mechanistic View of Nature If scientists are to succeed in promoting their view of the world, they cannot downplay those aspects of the scientific enterprise that the public finals trou- bling. Instead, they must work to see that the scientific viewpoint is not distorted by those who oppose it. In particular, says Singer, biologists need 30 SHAPING THE FUTURE

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to discuss in a straightforward way the profoundly mechanistic view of the natural world that has emerged from their work. Scientists welcome a mechanistic view of nature, because it means that the world is knowable, and perhaps explicable. But this viewpoint can easily be caricatured to imply that the world is mechanical, devoid of purpose or mean- ing7 inhuman. In fact, says Singer, a mechanistic view of nature by no means rids the world of its significance and beauty. "It is time for us to declare that our respect for nature, our love of its beauty, our concern for the environment, are not diminished by a molecular view of its workings," she says. A mechanistic view of nature also does not imply that scientists reject the values that some see as inextricably associated with traditional premises and authorities. Scientific understanding does not undermine fundamental human assumptions "about good and evil, about justice, about freedom, about joy and sadness," Singer says. "We need only look at other geneticists to realize that human interactions are pretty much unchanged by our knowledge of genetics. We still have the usual mix of kindness, friendship, nastiness, respect, disrespect, philosophy, and religion that exists everywhere else." An Agenda for Scientists Scientists face two main tasks in their attempts to reduce public misgivings about their work, according to Singer. The first is "to teach the substance of science more broadly and deeply." Widespread ignorance about science needs to be tackled starting with the youngest schoolchildren. For example, people's questions about the implications of mapping and sequencing the human gen- ome will require scientists to assess the work's impact and answer the public's questions. Such educational efforts require time spent at meetings and hear- ings, talking to the media, and dealing with legislators, time that most sci- entists would probably prefer to spend on their research. But it is one of the only ways to counter the views of those who woulc! see science constrained by playing on the public's fears of science. The second task is '`to convince non$cientists of the basically human nature of science and scientists." Scientists midst reveal their own doubts and ques- tions about the application of their work and be prepared to criticize "loud and clear" when the results of their work are misapplied, Singer believes. For instance, reports have surfaced that some parents are subjecting their children to unknown dangers by giving them human growth hormone, now plentiful thanks to recombinant DNA technology, to increase their stature for athletic or social reasons. "We should object," Singer says. "We should remind the public that evil deeds arise from human ignorance and greed, not from high-tech opportunities." THE PUBLIC'S PERSPECTIVE 31

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Scientists, and particularly biologists, should also seek to emphasize their concern that animals used in scientific research are treated humanely. More than anyone else, biologists recognize the value of animal research to basic biological knowledge and to human and animal health care. They are over- whelmingly opposed to those segments of the animal welfare and animal rights movements that would curtail this research. But scientists cannot let their opposition to these groups diminish their condemnation in those cases in which inhumane treatment does occur. C`It will not hurt us indeed, it will help public understanding of science if we admit that such cruelty troubles us, too, or that some few members of our community may be willing to exceed easily recognizable norms and should be stopped." Biologists must also be vigilant about the possible misuse of their work for biological warfare, Singer believes. The military contends that current work on biological warfare is purely for defensive reasons, '`but research for defense and offense is not very different in this field," Singer says. 'CWe have a special opportunity to align ourselves with human values. Finally, scientists must guard against mythologizing their own work by looking to science for answers to every human problem. C`In our fervor for science we too often forget humility," Singer says. C`We forget that our ig- norance far exceeds our knowledge." 32 SHAPING THE FUTURE