Richard Lewontin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Politics: Conversation with Richard C. Lewontin, AlexanderAgassiz Research Professor, Harvard University, November 20, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 5

Scientist as Activist

This opens up another line of inquiry that I want to get into before we talk about the question of the public's consciousness of science and the politics of science. You're known, and have been for quite a while, as a social critic, a commentator on science, somebody who has also been an activist. When you were at Chicago you were involved in a lot of the protests and so on. How did you come to that role? How does it relate to your role as a scientist?

How did I come to it? Harry, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. I was politically active as a student, as an undergraduate at Harvard. My father warned me not to get into political issues because it wouldn't be good for me, but I didn't pay attention to him and I got involved to a certain extent. When I was professor at Rochester, my wife and I, and Bob Fogel, the economist, and his wife sat in a police station because of the first incidents of police brutality against black people. That was just the way our lives went. When my wife and I were in school together -- we were in high school together -- we were part of a organized political group that the students organized called "The World We Want." That was just part of life. I don't know; I can't put it any more clearly than that.

How has that consciousness informed your role as a scientist? Has it?

Sure it has. In fact, my wife was just saying to me yesterday -- I was talking with a colleague about some work I was doing on ants and ant behavior, and a woman came up from Stanford to talk to me about it. When my colleague left, Mary Jane said to me, "Why do you want to do that? Why does anybody want to study the behavior of ants? What's it got to do with anything that we care about?" And we started to talk about that issue, which is: "What is the motivation for academic life, in general?"

A great deal of what I do is pretty academic, if I may put it that way. The fact of the matter is that as academics, we are supported by society in a pretty nice way. We have security. The claim is that intellectual life has a value of its own, but my development has been such as to believe that what you do -- I mean, sure, you have to make a living -- but to make a claim on the public purse, to make a claim on the resources of society, you have to do more than say, "I just want to satisfy my intellectual curiosity." I mean, that's the kind of mental masturbation that is not self justifying, as far as I can tell. So you have to do political things -- at least, I have to do political things.

Then there's the question of the relationship. You could turn it upside down and say, "Why bother to do science?" It's because I like it, I agree with that; but also because it provides you with legitimacy. Legitimacy is very important. Even the most prominent and world-famous scientists, when they lose their legitimacy as scientists, they also lose their legitimacy as social commentators. That certainly happened to Linus Pauling. When he stopped being a productive scientist and went off and talked about other things, people turned off their hearing aids, because "why should I listen to him?"

I write a lot of public stuff -- I write for the New York Review of Books; I write books about things related to science, but social things -- and I've made a promise to myself, and I hope I can keep it, and that is that the day that I stop doing any technical science of any kind, I'm going to quit writing anything. Because nothing is easier than to say, "Oh, well, that guy, he can't be a scientist anymore. He's over the hill, and he just writes this stuff because he doesn't know what else to do." Therefore, it's useless. You must have legitimacy. My scientific work gives me that legitimacy.

In preparation for this interview, I read some of your papers about politics and science. I was struck that -- I'm not an expert on this -- but your science informs the way you do your analysis. It's not the theory behind it, so to speak, but rather, it helps you bring clarity to some of the issues, because in a number of the papers that I looked at, you seemed to be faulting both sides of the debate.

You raised a very important point, Harry. A book which people don't much read anymore, which was very well known around the time of the Second World War, by a French sociologist and historian, Julian Benda, was called La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). What Benda was saying is that intellectuals, who are supposed to be committed to a careful, logical, rational analysis, would commit treason against that in the interest of pushing a social agenda, even when that meant saying things that weren't true, or claiming things were true that they didn't know to be true, or even things to be true which they know not to be true -- an important difference, by the way. And that is uppermost in my mind all the time.

For example, there's a struggle about so-called genetically manipulated organisms, or GM foods and so on. Now, one might have a number of reasons for opposing that particular technology. To the extent that I oppose it, it has nothing to do with dangers to health, of which there is no evidence. And, yet, I see people writing, making claims which might support the public position I want to take on a political issue, but using pseudo-scientific claims and their own legitimacy as scientists to tell what come to be lies. I have to tell you, when I was thinking about the GM food thing, book coverI read the works of a woman, Vandana Shiva, who's an extremely important writer in this field, who has a Ph.D. in physics, so she's a scientist. And I'll give you a specific example. One thing I read, Shiva said: "Do you realize that when children, infants, eat baby food, they're getting eight times the dose of estrogen that a woman gets when she takes her contraceptive pill?" And I thought, "My God! How terrible, that a little baby will get eight times the dose of estrogen that an adult woman gets when she takes a contraceptive pill!"

So I went to look at the paper she cited. Well, yes, it's true, they are getting eight times the dose of a thing, but it turns out not to be physiologically active estrogen. It turns out to have only one one-thousandth of the physiological activity that estrogen has. It's a thing called a plant estrogen. She played on the word "estrogen." Now, she must have known the truth in the matter, because she cited the paper from which she got the data. She would presumably regard that as a justifiable -- I would call it a deliberate distortion; she would say something else -- in the interest of the greater good. I think we cannot put up with that, because in the end it will be detected, it will make people cynical, and it will be counterproductive.

You bring out that it happens on all sides. You did a review of the Shapiro commission on bioethics, and in dealing with the political problem (not the scientific problem), they legitimated some of the religious concerns, I think it was. In other words, there was an appendix to the report that was making part of the discussion something that had no basis in science.

Well, not only that. That was a political issue, but what was so interesting is that they interviewed Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and some liberal Protestants. When I questioned why they brought in those religious people, they said, "Well, after all, religion is a very important part of our society," and they made a perfectly reasonable explanation. So then I said, "Okay, then why didn't you bring in Pat Robertson? His constituency is a great deal larger than the constituents of people you did bring in." And they had no answer to that.

The fact of the matter is, they didn't want to bring in fundamentalist Christians, because they would rock the boat too much. But if your real excuse is that you want to understand where people are coming from, and you want an input from the public, based on religion, in order to make this political decision, then why are you avoiding the very people who are the most vocal, the most politically active, and represent a large fraction of American religious people? The answer is clear: to bring in Pat Robertson was too dangerous. He would upset the apple cart.

Let's pursue this, because in the introduction to your lecture, the faculty member introducing you pointed out that you joined the National Academy of Science in such and such year. And I believe they said you resigned from the Academy a few years later.

Yes, about three years later.

Was that for scientific reasons, or was that in your role as a social critic?

It was in the latter, but also, to put it even more stuffily, it had to do with personal integrity. All scientists in the United States want to be members of the National Academy; that's big stuff. So here I was, elected to the National Academy. I felt wonderful. And then I discovered that among other things, the National Academy, through its operating arm, the National Research Council, had committees doing secret war research. It was so secret that as a member of the National Academy, which is the responsible body, I was not only not allowed to know what they were doing, I wasn't even allowed to know the title of the research.

So at the second meeting I went to, I got up and said, "I can't be responsible for work other people are doing and not even know what it is. I think you must stop this, and if you don't stop it, I have to resign from the Academy. I refuse to take responsibility." Well, of course, being a political organization which is almost quasi-governmental, the National Academy board was not about to refuse the Department of Defense and the military establishment, so they refused me. So I left. But that was the proximal reason.

The greater reason was that I realized around that time that the existence of a thing called the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization to which every scientist wants to be aspire, is destructive of intellectual life. The whole notion of the chief motivating element being prizes, honorary degrees, personal prestige, memberships in academies, that really turned me off. It happened at a time when I was particularly politically active in movements of the sixties, and so on. That was a contradiction I couldn't deal with. So I had no choice but to resign.

Next page: Government and Science

© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California