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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2000

Lewis Wolpert, University College London, UK

Biography

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years, as Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science. His book "Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression" was published by Faber in 1999. This book was the basis for three television programmes entitled 'A Living Hell' which he presented on BBC2. √ęPrinciples of Development1, of which he is principal author, was published by Current Biology in 1998. √ęPassionate Minds1 with Alison Richards, the second set of interviews with scientists, was published by Oxford University Press in 1997. 'The Unnatural Nature of Science' was published by Faber in 1992. 'The Triumph of the Embry' was published by Oxford University Press in 1991. 'A Passion for Science' with Alison Richards, the first set of interviews with scientists, was published by Oxford University Press in 1988. He also writes a column for 'The Independent'.

Abstract

From Science to Society

The idea that knowledge is dangerous is deeply embedded in our culture. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and in Milton's Paradise Lost the serpent addresses the Tree as the 'Mother of Science'. Indeed the whole of Western literature has not been kind to science and is filled with images of scientists meddling with nature with disastrous results. For many people, science is something rather remote and often difficult. Part of the problem is that scientific explanations go against common sense, our natural expectations. There is some fear and distrust of science: genetic engineering and the supposed ethical issues it raises; the fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear power; the impact of industry in despoiling the environment. Scientists are repeatedly referred to as 'playing at God'. Many of these criticisms coexist with the hope, particularly in medicine, that science will provide cures to all major illnesses. It is ironic that while scientists are blamed for despoiling the environment and making us live in a high risk society it is only because of science that we know about these risks, such as global warming and BSE. The hysteria over cloning is not easy to understand as it does not to my mind raise any new ethical issues. But is science dangerous and what are the special social responsibilities of scientists? An important distinction is that between science and technology; between knowledge and understanding on the one hand,and the application of that knowledge to making something, or using it in some practical way. It is also essential to recognise that reliable scientific knowledge is value-free and has no moral or ethical value. The ethical issues arise when science is applied to technology. I can think of no situation where ignorance would be preferable to the availability of knowledge. Scientists cannot easily predict the social and technological implications of their current research. Whatever new technology is introduced, it is not for the scientists to make the moral or ethical decisions. They have neither special rights nor skills in areas involving moral or ethical issues. Scientists do have access to specialised knowledge of the world and so have the obligation to both make public any social implications of their work and to give some assessment of its reliability. To those who doubt whether the public or politicians are capable to taking the correct decisions I urge the advice of Thomas Jefferson. 'I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their direction.'

But how does one ensure that the public are involved in decision making? How can we ensure that scientists, doctors, engineers, and other experts, who must be involved, do not approximate decision making for themselves. How do we ensure that scientists take on the social obligation of making the implications of their work public. At a time when the public are being urged and encouraged to learn more science, so scientists are going to have to learn to understand more about public concerns. And it is most important that they do not allow themselves to become the unquestioning tools of either government or industry.