Overturned 'Truths'

Irving Klotz's "Opinion" piece (The Scientist, July 22, 1996, page 9) against postmodernism in science disturbed me greatly. Klotz held that the postmodernist view of science is put forth by nonscientists, that it is untenable, there being absolute truths, and that our scientific views are uncolored by who we are. The assertion that philosophers writing about science, but not actual scientists, hold postmodernist beliefs is not supported by data. I imagine that there are many practicing scient

Sep 30, 1996
Ulrich Melcher

Irving Klotz's "Opinion" piece (The Scientist, July 22, 1996, page 9) against postmodernism in science disturbed me greatly. Klotz held that the postmodernist view of science is put forth by nonscientists, that it is untenable, there being absolute truths, and that our scientific views are uncolored by who we are. The assertion that philosophers writing about science, but not actual scientists, hold postmodernist beliefs is not supported by data.

I imagine that there are many practicing scientists, like myself, who believe that the modernist attitudes exemplified by Klotz's piece impede the progress of science. I train my students to distinguish observational facts from their interpretations. By teaching the students to be aware that new observations can cause us to revise current interpretations, I believe, I am better preparing them to make new discoveries.

The history of science is replete with examples of "truths" that at the time seemed incontrovertible and have since been overturned. We no longer believe that all things are made up of earth, air, water, and fire. Proteins were long thought the principle carriers of heredity. Nucleic acids were thought of as repeating polymers of a basic tetranucleotide unit. Later, it was realized that heredity was carried by nucleic acids, though we now are forced by prions to admit that on some occasions proteins can carry heritable information. Proteins are no longer the only biological catalysts. Similarly, interpretations that present modernists would peddle as "truths" may be overturned by future observations. Even the speed of light, offered by Klotz as an absolute truth, may turn out to vary under some as-yet-unexplored condition.

Klotz lists as a "fact" that the mass of hemoglobin is 64,000. The mass varies with a number of factors, including what low- molecular-mass molecules or ions are bound to the polypeptides, which species and which individual it comes from. Hemoglobin S, found in many individuals of African heritage, forms aggregates whose molecular mass is many fold larger. Thus, Klotz's concept of the mass of hemoglobin is an example of a "truth" affected by Caucasian cultural affiliation. Indeed, many would accept as truth that hemoglobin S is a "mutant" form of hemoglobin A. For some individuals in malaria-endemic regions, it might be considered the "normal" form.

Thus, I firmly believe that scientists like Klotz who believe in current interpretations as absolute truths are wearing blinders that impede their vision. True, science aims at the truth and each time a paradigm is replaced by a new paradigm, progress toward that truth occurs. Yet, we are arrogant to think that we have arrived at the ultimate truth. I prefer to think we are just closer to it than our predecessors were.

Ulrich Melcher
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
246 NRC
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Okla. 74078-3035
E-mail: umelcher@biochem.okstate.edu
(The Scientist, Vol:10, #19, p. 12, September 30, 1996)