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

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Advice to Students and the Public

If students were to watch or read this interview, and they aspire to wear both the hats that you have worn very well -- that of a critic of science and a commentator on society in general, but also that of a scientist -- are there some rules that we can lay down for how one does that well without compromising either?

Well, rule one, Harry, is don't start out by being a social critic. Start out by being a scientist. I've said it in this interview before, but I'll say it again, that the critical issue for a social critic is legitimacy. You don't want to be written off as some sort of loud mouth who can't do anything better than just yak. So the first thing to do is to establish real credentials as a producer of science, recognized by the science community, and accepted by them as being of some value. When you stand on that base, you can then go out.

The second point is that you must make it clear at all times -- and it must be clear in your own mind -- that the results you get in your science and what you say about science cannot be shown to be simply the consequence of your social attitudes. If I say that genes and environment are important, I have to have a firm underpinning for that within the scientific apparatus. I cannot say, "I wish that were true because I would like a world in which I could change the world, and therefore, I'm prejudiced in the way I report the world," because that's the first thing that your opponents will say: "Oh, you just say that because that's your political ideology." You're justifying that political ideology by pretending that science has done that. The observations have to be there, independent of any justification. You have to distinguish between why you do a thing and what the result is. It may be that you are propelled forward to study the relationship between gene and environment because you have some political agenda, but what you say had better not be tainted by that. That's very tricky and very important.

And what is your advice to the general public? Because people [could say], "Well, if he can't understand what's being said in The New York Times science section, how can I understand it?" What can the average person do to be informed citizens in the debates that involve science policies that are rationalized about science through the uses of science?

Harry, you've raised one of the most difficult social problems that exists. I want to put it in a broader context for a moment, before I come back to the specific question you're asking, because I don't know the answer to the specific question.

The founding fathers of our republic said, essentially, that you can't have a democratic society if you don't have an educated electorate. How can people make democratic decisions about what has to be done, unless they have some education? So we have a public education system. What the founding fathers never could have imagined is the kind of knowledge that you would have to have in order to make informed decisions.

Let's talk about the "Star Wars" project. I don't know enough about physics and engineering to decide whether it would work or not. I have to trust somebody else to tell me. I don't know enough about physics to make those decisions. I have to trust what Steve Weinberg tells me. Now, that is a very serious problem. I'm a scientist, and I still have to trust what other people tell me.

So the problem for the public, in general, is that in order to make democratic decisions, you have to believe something about elite knowledge, which is possessed by only a few people. It's very hard to know what to do about that. I don't have a glib answer to that. It is one of the contradictions of a democratic society in a highly advanced technological world, that to make rational political decisions, you have to have a knowledge which is accessible only to a very few people.

The first rule, I suppose, is if there are public disagreements among people who are supposedly equally expert, then you'd better be careful. If they all agree, well, you have no choice but to take what they say. I don't know what else you can do. But if there is any disagreement, then listen carefully to what those debates are about, and see if you can figure out who is coming from where and why. That's true for the Genome Project and things like that. That's what killed Star Wars -- well, I don't know if that's what killed Star Wars, but that's what made the public doubtful about it. Whether that had any effect politically, I don't know the answer.

I have no answer to the question, because there are no institutions promoting the public understanding of science that are widely available to the public, that do not obfuscate the issues, either by funneling them through media people who have to try to get the space before your eyes and your ears (and, therefore, they're under control of editorial exigencies and so on), or because they are the captives of scientists who have their own agendas (so that the head of the Whitehead Institute will tell them how wonderful everything they do is, because that's part of the agenda). I don't know the answer. I don't have an answer. I think the answer is "listen to me!"

We have to find out how to institutionalize you!

You said two things that I will quote, for your comment. You said, "Men make their own history, but not as they choose."

I didn't invent that.

But it tells us where you are philosophically in your view of human nature. And then you also said, "It is a responsibility to decide what kind of world you want and make the decisions to move in that direction."

If you can.

If you can.

And that's the problem.

The contexts I said them in are important. You can't make the world stay still. It's going to evolve. Species are going to become extinct. The world is going to change. Technology is going to change. Nature is going to change. Nature is changing all the time. So if we're going to concentrate on influencing things, we should not try to concentrate on holding them the way they are, because that's hopeless. What we should do, in fact, is to try to concentrate on changing them in a direction that we find better. The only trouble is that "we" is a heterogeneous collection, which includes people with very different interests.

I'm a citizen of the state of Vermont, and my fellow townspeople have bumper stickers on their cars that say "Another Vermonter for global warming," because if you live in Vermont, you'd like it to be warmer. People who own stock in companies that make air-conditioning machines might be in favor of global warming. That's trivializing the point, which is that different people have different interests, and therefore, the struggle is not a moral one. It's a political one. It's always a political one. That's the most important thing you have to recognize, that you may be struggling to make the world go in one direction; somebody else is struggling to make it go in another direction. The question is, "Who has power?" If there's a differential in power, and if you haven't got it and they have, then you have to do something to gain power, which is to organize. I guess my final word is organize, organize, organize.

On that note, Professor Lewontin, thank you very much for taking the time from your schedule to be here today.

Thank you, Harry, for talking to me.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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