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The Importance of Understanding Science
An Interview with David Balamuth

As a freshman at Harvard College, physicist David Balamuth read C.P. Snow's famous Rede lecture, The Two Cultures, and was intrigued. Snow argued that England's educational elite was split between two distinct groups: the scientists and those in the arts and humanities and that these influential groups misunderstood each other to an increasing and disturbing degree. Such mutual incomprehension, even hostility among its knowledge workers couldn't be good for any industrial country. After reading about these concerns, the Harvard freshman class went to hear a distinguished poet and an equally distinguished biologist discuss them. Balamuth listened carefully and came away with the "dead sure certainty that C.P. Snow had it right." The poet and the scientist had spent the entire evening talking past each other. "I don't think either one heard a word the other said."

Thirty years later, the problem that Snow identified is still with us and may be worse. But now the costs of ignorance and misunderstanding are higher. If laypeople don't understand what scientists do and why it matters - and if scientists have trouble explaining their work to nonscientists - how long will our society continue to support cutting-edge research - and what are the consequences? We asked Associate Dean for the Natural Sciences David Balamuth for his take on this issue.

A: If the historical record is any guide, scientific knowledge is vital to sustaining the earth's population. Therefore, society should support science if for no other reason than its long-term self-interest. For their part, it's essential for scientists to realize that their freedom to pursue research is the result of the work and sweat of people who generate the resources to support these efforts. Scientists must be accountable and explain why they pursue the questions they do. In any successful bargain, like the compact between scientists and society, each party must recognize the fundamental legitimacy of the other's point of view.

One of the major hurdles we face is how hard it is for laypeople to realize how long the timescales involved in scientific work can be. At Penn, for example, we tend to think of Benjamin Franklin as a wonderfully practical fellow who invented bifocals and so on. Far more important were his profound and important discoveries about the nature of electricity, which is the foundation of our industrial civilization. Nearly 200 years later, most of the objects in this room have come from those fundamental advances that Franklin made. We have an obligation to maintain that intellectual momentum just as our ancestors did. We owe it to our children and grandchildren. If we don't, we're in for some pretty tough times.

It is really a problem of education, and one we're working on at Penn. To discover and understand the laws that govern the universe in which all of us and our children will live should be a great opportunity, not a chore. But there is a very primitive relationship between the public and science. To put it bluntly, the only thing that appears to have motivated large numbers of people to invest significant resources in science is fear of dying, which is still very much with us. It would be far better if the motivation came from a sense of wonder, tempered of course by enlightened self-interest.

Q: How scientifically educated do you think citizens need to be?

A: Much more than they are now. Unfortunately, it's still respectable among educated people to be ignorant of science. People still say, "Oh, I can't do math," or "I never took physics," and yet they wouldn't dream of saying, "Oh, I've never read a novel." That would mark them as uninteresting.

We have to get past this attitude if we're going to live in a world where citizens make intelligent decisions about questions driven by the properties of the physical universe. "Should we build nuclear power plants?" "What should we do about the spread of disease?" "What should we do about the privacy of genetic information?" If you're on a jury, what is the value of a DNA fingerprint? We simply cannot afford as a society to have people saying, "That's not my problem." These issues are everyone's problem.

If I accomplish nothing else as an associate dean, I hope to make progress in that direction. It's very important to make certain that the education of our students reflects a knowledge of scientific principles. C.P. Snow said that these two statements should be equivalent: "I know what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is," and "I have read a play of Shakespeare's." You should be acquainted with both.

Q: Scientific education has lots of competition. Consider the pseudosciences that so many people defend. What would you say to someone who claimed that astrology was based on scientific principles?

A: That's a fair question. Let's try to give it a serious answer. It's a matter of deciding on the criteria for judging scientific truth. You have to establish your rules and methods. You need to make them accessible to others, and scientists do. We can't say to the public, "Trust us because we have our mysterious methods." That makes us sound just like the astrologers. We have to peel layer after layer of the onion and expose what's underneath. For example, astrology claims that future events can be predicted based on the positions of heavenly bodies at the time of one's birth. That would appear to be an inference that could be tested. Apply logical principles, and see if it delivers on its claims. (Indeed, St. Augustine in the fourth century commented on just such claims, examined the track record, and pronounced astrology to be useless as a predictor. - Ed. note)

There is a large body of knowledge that scientists believe is true. If you ask why, we will teach you why as best we can. We also continually refine our ideas by proposing challenges to them. Science is the ultimate democratic system. Anyone can raise a hand and say, "I don't accept that." If the questioner is clever enough and can design a good experiment, he or she may prove that something we thought true about the world isn't so. It happens all the time. That doesn't happen in the pseudosciences, which are most often portrayed as the exclusive, and secretive, realms of their practitioners.

I once had trouble explaining to a colleague why I disliked the fact that we had an astrology program on WXPN. I don't think a 260-year-old institution of higher learning should lend its name to junk science. He saw it as harmless fun, but it's not harmless. People who cannot distinguish between real science and pseudoscience are not helped by the apparent acceptance of pseudoscience by institutions that have some role in shaping public opinion.

Q: Does real science ever fail to deliver on its claims?

A: It's not always obvious when science pursues a question whether it is a short or a long-term problem. Back in the 1970s, we launched a War on Cancer that was supposed to take a practical-minded approach. "Let's choose a specific problem - the clinical manifestations of cancer - and focus our research on immediate solutions." Most of that money was unwisely spent on scattershot approaches to clinical therapies or on developing different kinds of drugs without any real understanding of the fundamental biological mechanisms of the disease. We still don't have a cure for cancer. When, and it will happen soon, a true microscopic understanding of cancer emerges, it will turn out that the most important investigations were those being pursued on the fundamental level in molecular biology. How does the disease really work? Once you understand that, you have some chance of altering it in a useful way.

A lot of other problems have long time horizons. Global warming is one. If you make a mistake about it, the consequences could be pretty bad.On the other hand, potential responses will involve enormous economic consequences - such as moving New York City to the nearest hilltop. The bottom line is that we desperately need to be doing the research that will provide the factual basis for a decision, which in a democracy must ultimately follow the political process.

Q: Is there anything that we probably won't understand no matter how much research we do? Like human consciousness, for example?

A: At a visceral level, I believe that it is, in principle, possible to explain even mental processes, including consciousness. Understanding, when it comes, will result from a unique mixture of "bottom up" approaches through the cellular nature of the nervous system, and "top down" methodologies involving research into the physiological basis of cognitive processes. These both ultimately involve reductionism which seeks to explain how a complicated system works in terms of its simpler components and their interactions. It's a powerful way of thinking about the world, but it has obvious limitations. First you need to identify the proper scale and ask the right questions: it doesn't help to understand the functioning of a virus to know that its fundamental constituents, like all matter, are the elementary particles of physics, quarks and leptons. In many cases, we are also limited by the kind of experiments we're capable of doing. If you want to know how a watch works, but the only way you could learn was by throwing it against a wall and seeing which way the pieces bounced, you might have a little trouble discovering its organizing principles. In the case of consciousness, it's even worse. There are a lot of components and a lot of interactions. Beyond that, there are profound ethical considerations when it comes to experimenting on human subjects. Much of what we know about different parts of the brain is the result of accidental trauma. Injuries sometimes allow us to infer from the behaviors that ensued - loss of memory, loss of other functions, etc. - what areas of the brain were affected. But clearly, that's not the method of choice for learning about consciousness.

Q: Is there anything we should not know? Areas we should not investigate?

A: I'd make a distinction between acquiring knowledge and doing things with it. There is lots of knowledge that can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The favorite historical example is the discovery of nuclear fission. Would it have been better to leave that genie in the bottle? I think the answer is almost certainly no. You can't limit people's desire to understand how the world works. And my sense is that you shouldn't. General knowledge is all right. Knowledge about individuals - how should the government use your unique DNA fingerprint - gets into issues of privacy. There I would take a hard-nosed view: there are lots of legitimate circumscriptions to the use of scientific knowledge that society has every right to impose. But that doesn't mean that the knowledge itself shouldn't be pursued. Simply to say, "I will not ask that question," is to have lost the game. If you've identified and refined a question, you've already asked it.

Q: Some writers have suggested that we're coming to the end of the great days in science. There won't be any more major new theories - like natural selection or quantum mechanics - that dominate entire fields. Science will just fill in the blanks, solve interesting puzzles, and so forth. Do you think the great discoveries are all behind us?

A: No, I really don't. There have been lots of times in scientific history when people thought that the edifice was complete in that sense. "Most of what we need to know is known in broad outline, and the rest is just filling in the details." It's important to understand that most of the great scientific breakthroughs have come from ideas that didn't appear to be wrong at first but then turned out to be - and a whole new theory opened up. Relativity and quantum mechanics were like that. They came out of the failures of nineteenth-century science to explain all of our observations.

Right now science is attacking fundamental unsolved problems across the entire intellectual spectrum. Why is the proton 2000 times heavier than the electron? How did the universe come to have the structure that we see? How do proteins fold to produce the working structures found in living things? And how did evolution make them so? In the life sciences, we are at the threshold of a revolution that could take us from a molecular understanding of developmental biology to the problem of consciousness. This would be comparable to the explosive developments in the physical sciences during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. The difficulty of these problems should not be underestimated. We are literally beginning to understand the alphabet of life, but it's a long way from there to writing the literature.

David P. Balamuth is professor of physics and, since 1995, associate dean for the natural sciences. His own research interests are in experimental nuclear structure physics, most recently the structure of so-called "exotic" nuclei. He and his students perform their experiments at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in Michigan and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California.

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