Science's Negative Public Image: A Puzzling And Dissatisfying Matter

Lewis Wolpert, a professor of biology as applied to medicine, University College, London, writes in his latest book, The Unnatural Nature of Science, of a misconception widely held by the public that "scientists either pursue truth in a dispassionate manner...or that they are entirely competitive and selfish."

Lewis Wolpert
Jun 13, 1993

Editor's Note: Lewis Wolpert, a professor of biology as applied to medicine, University College, London, writes in his latest book, The Unnatural Nature of Science (Harvard University Press, 1993), of a misconception widely held by the public that "scientists either pursue truth in a dispassionate manner...or that they are entirely competitive and selfish." The truth lies somewhere in between, says Wolpert. A blend of competition, cooperation, and commitment characterizes and informs the researcher's outlook and behavior; indeed, the coexistence of these factors is fundamental to scientific productivity. But the presence of these sometimes conflicting motives can be frustrating. On one hand, he points out, "scientists want other scientists to accept their ideas"; on the other hand, "scientists without good reason."

In the following excerpt from his book, Wolpert explores some manifestations of this apparent paradox, inspired as he is by a desire to help resolve what he considers "a dissatisfaction...

"The dissatisfaction is with the public image of science and with much of the writing about science in the media," he says, "as well as that by academics, including philosophers and sociologists. The puzzle is why the nature of science should be so misunderstood and why non-scientists have so much difficulty understanding scientific ideas."

Scientists cannot be treated as idealized animals and it is not legitimate to apply a sociobiological analysis to them. However, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that scientists wish to maximize the success of their ideas. Success can be thought of in terms of selection of their ideas by the community in the field in which they work. This is associated with personal success, which involves advancement in relation to jobs, promotion, praise by one's peers, money for supporting research, some personal financial rewards, and, on occasion, prizes. The value to the individual scientist of each of these rewards will vary, but they are closely interlinked and can be lumped together under the rubric of esteem by other scientists.

In order to promote the success of their ideas, and hence themselves, scientists must thus adopt a strategy of both competition and collaboration, of altruism and selfishness. Each must balance his or her behavior, in relation, for example, to sharing information, in these terms. Artists are confronted with such choices to a much lesser extent. Another special feature that characterizes modern science is the enormous number of collaborative research projects. Single-author papers are now a rarity in the scientific literature. Many papers have four or five authors, and in some cases in subatomic physics, the number of names attached to the paper may be fifty or even more.

It may not be unreasonable to think that the strategy scientists adopt is one that is entirely competitive and self-seeking, since there are, in a sense, only a limited number of golden "gold" has been claimed, the other "prospectors" are left penniless. But this view ignores the intensely cooperative nature of the scientific enterprise. Scientific success is not only about making discoveries about nature but about persuading other scientists of the validity of your ideas. In the process, one has to be part of a community which, with time, has developed quite a rigorous set of unstated norms for acceptable behavior. Included in these norms are the ideas that science is public knowledge, freely available to all; that there are no privileged sources of scientific knowledge--ideas in science must be judged on their intrinsic merits; and that scientists should take nothing on trust, in the sense that scientific knowledge should be constantly scrutinized. In addition, there have arisen a set of rules for the sharing of materials. In molecular biology, for example, once a paper is published which contains information on specific genes or proteins, then the authors are duty-bound to provide materials from their laboratory which enable other workers to pursue work on those genes or proteins. They may, of course, require that future research be collaborative, but it is not acceptable for them to keep all the materials for themselves.

There is an almost prurient fascination in the media with both competition and fraud in science. It is as if these contaminate the purity of science, and they are viewed almost in the same way as someone of note in the religious world being discovered to be wholly immoral. Competition between scientists is regarded as, at the very least, indecent--quite alien to the image of the ivory- tower scientists pursuing knowledge for its own sake. But this is to fail to understand the special nature of the scientific enterprise and how scientists interact with one another. Scientists have to adopt a special strategy in order to be successful. They have both to compete and cooperate. Carl Djerassi, the chemist who first synthesized the birth-control pill, is one of the very few distinguished scientists who have written a novel about science; it is not surprising that he made fraud and the Nobel Prize its central themes. J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that his great pleasure was to see his ideas widely used even though he was not credited with their discovery. That may have been fine for someone as famous and perhaps noble as Haldane, but for most scientists recognition is the reward in science.

There are cases where scientists have plagiarized the work of others and where results have been manufactured to support a particular hypothesis. It is inevitable that among the many thousands involved in scientific research there should be a small number who behave dishonestly and quite against the accepted norms. In several cases even distinguished scientists have been involved, by putting their name on a paper containing fraudulent results obtained by a junior colleague. They may, in some detail and so also have been deceived, since it is one of the dangers of ever-increasing collaborative work that scientists must have complete trust in the colleagues with whom they collaborate. For the functioning and the image of science, fraud is inexcusable; but for the advancement of science in the long run it really does not matter much, because it is so rare. Moreover, many respectable papers will themselves turn out to be wrong or irrelevant. A fraudulent result in an important area will soon be discovered when others fail to replicate the work, and this is exactly what has happened in several cases. More subtle is the scientist's desire to "massage" the results so as to support a viewpoint. Distinguished scientists have been accused of doing just this. Mendel's results that established his ideas on inheritance were, it is claimed, just too good to be believable. The desire to present one's results in the best light can be difficult to resist.

Excerpt from The Unnatural Nature of Science, copyright 1993, Harvard University Press, is used with permission of the publisher.