Science crucified

A recent meet combats the anti-science wave in Europe

By Dinesh C Sharma
Published: Wednesday 30 November 2005

Science crucified

-- In the second week of June 2005, walls all over Italy were plastered with: "Life cannot be put to test. Don't vote". The exhortations came from the Catholic clergy, which asked Italians to shun a referendum to repeal their country's law 40: a law banning embryonic stem cell research and restricting access to assisted reproductive technologies. The church carried the day. Only 26 per cent of the eligible citizens took part, roughly half the number required for it to be legally valid -- though around 80 per cent of those who voted wanted the law repealed.

The acrimony over repealing Europe's most restrictive fertility law is symptomatic of science's embattled state. Evolution-related disputes checker the map of the Western world. Religious leaders and the devout cry hoarse over embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. Womb hiring and assisted reproductive technologies are seen as signs of a looming dystopia. Scientists constantly ward of allegations of playing god, often -- as in the case of the referendum over Italy's law 40 -- unsuccessfully.

Future of science Umberto Veronesi, an Italian oncologist, laments, "The anti-science movement is growing at an alarming rate in Europe. Investments in scientific research are falling. Science is either perceived as amoral or mere theory beyond the comprehension of common human beings." Veronisi was amongst a group of concerned scientists who organised a conference on 'Future of Science' in the Venice, Italy, between September 21and 23, 2005.

"We proposed a dialogue between scientists and the society. Freedom, universality and criticism, are values inherent to science. So, it can be a powerful antidote to intolerance and a good starting point for dialogue between different cultures," says he.

Italy, with its history, was an apt venue. Once the harbinger of the European Renaissance, it's today overtaken by a virulent anti-science movement. Says Veronesi, "All kind of obscurantism rules the roost in Italy. Fortune-tellers, astrologers, magicians, even exorcists, today jostle for prime time on tv." Italy devotes a far smaller proportion of its gross domestic produce on research compared to other European nations; research bodies like the Italian National Research Council are in perennial crisis. The mathematics, physics and chemistry departments of Italian universities attract fewer students than what they did some years ago.

A religion called science A stated objective of the Venice meeting was to explore possibilities of building bridges between science and religion as well as with the worlds of philosophy, culture, politics and industry. But the very first session made it clear that it was an uphill task. "Science is the only path to knowledge," declared Peter Atkins of the University of Oxford, uk, sharing forum with representatives of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. "Religion only provides a soft cushion to our lives, while science provides hard basis for what we think and do," he contended. Atkins then went on to elaborate the core features of science that make it reliable: insistence on experiment and its public character. "In contrast, the core features of religion are its reliance on sentiment and on private revelation. These make it unreliable. Experiment is a better route to knowledge than sentiment," he argued.

Atkins then held forth on the controversy over stem cell research. "Pontiffs of different religions try to limit stem cell research based on theological conceptions. It is deplorable that ancient sacred texts are used to dictate research on medicines. It works to the detriment of human health," he said.

Atkins had a supporter in Lewis Wolpert, professor of applied biology at University College, London. "There is no evidence that the early embryo is a human being -- as believed by religions -- as it can give rise to twins," he said.

But, some other scientists at the gathering took the middle path. "There is a lot of common ground between the worlds of religion and science. The basic enquiry is same: to locate humankind in natural and cosmological processes. Science has one answer to this query. Religion, on the other hand, offers another," said Predhiman K Kaw, director, Institute for Plasma Research, Ahmedabad. In a similar vein Y S Rajan, former executive director, of the Delhi-based Technology for Information Forecasting and Assesment Council, said scientists who refuse to engage with religion are "theologians of science".

Find a meeting ground
Rajan asserted: "The entire debate revolves around big religions. But we have thousands of religions and cultures. These have survived for long because they offer something good to humanity. We should find meeting grounds with these cultures. Then a dailogue might ensue."

But Wolpert noted, "the idea that 'science is dangerous' is deeply embedded in our cultures. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Goethe's Faust, and Aldus Huxley's Brave New World reflect this animus. It's difficult to find a novel in which scientists come out well or a film that's sympathetic to science. The image of Frankenstein has been turned by the media into genetic pornography," he rued. Deriding bioethics as a "growth industry" and lampooning opponents of cloning as "moral masturbators", Wolpert said, "cloning, stem cell research and gene therapy do not involve any new ethical issues". He said no area of research is socially sensitive so as to proscribe research. "And in any case," argued Wolpert, "we should rely on the many institutions of a democratic society: parliament, a free and vigorous press, affected groups, and the scientists themselves."

Other participants argued that instead of letting external entities such as lawmakers dictate scientific research, the disciplines themselves should have internal ethical codes, limits which the scientist should not transgress.

But, others felt that scientists are not responsible for the technological implications of their research. They can only make public both the social implications and technological applications of their work, it was argued.

The exercise resulted in a resolve to set up an alliance for scientific development, involving scientists, philosophers, politicians, jurists and theologists, to "oppose isolation of science by promoting constructive dialogue between all forms of knowledge that respect human identity and dignity".

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