“Retrospectives and prospects on the freedom of science from the viewpoint of a historian�?

Gilberto Corbellini
Sapienza – University of Rome

The second edition of the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research should represent the opportunity to both highlight and discuss more systematically the reasons that hinder the recognition of the role that science and its practical effects, including the social diffusion of a scientific culture, have been playing for the promotion of human social and economic wellbeing. Moreover, it would be useful to discuss the most effective strategies which could keep down the effects of the political actions aimed to either restraining the freedom of scientific research or even manipulating science, be they inspired by religious or non religious anti-democratic ideologies, or springing from formally anti-totalitarian positions which nonetheless dangerously misunderstand the relationship between science and democracies.

However, the debate about the freedom of science cannot leave the context aside, better said the plurality of political and economic settings within which science is produced. And as we all know, the problems scientists face vary a lot depending on these contexts. Probably, one aspect that could be considered as being quite transversal is represented by the apparent paradox indicating that wherever people’s wellbeing has greatly increased thank to scientific and technological progresses, distrusts and cultural oppositions towards science and scientists are also very common. If you read carefully the periodic surveys on public perception of science, such as the Eurobarometer surveys, or the National Science Foundation, we get the important information that there seem to be greater reservations towards science and its consequences just in those countries where social wellbeing is more widely spread and where good quality science is produced. The citizens of those countries tend to focus more on the limits of science rather than on its potentials and they believe that scientific progress dangerously alter those natural balances which are necessary for a true human and environmental welfare.

In economically and socially less advanced countries – I’m not addressing today those domestic situations where science is looked on because of religious fundamentalism and total lack of civil freedom – expectations towards science are indeed more optimistic. Obviously in this context the impact of scientific progress on people’s wellbeing is more tangible namely as it provides the opportunity to go beyond the typical constraints of a nature-dependent life. However, the development of an internal political and cultural environment to promote investment in scientific education, basic research and innovation is a difficult goal to attain for these countries. Therefore, their development still relies heavily on import of technology from advanced countries.

Perception toward science and technologies in the Western countries is heavily inclined to positively address scientific achievements when they produce advantages, especially in terms of health improvement perspectives. On the other hand, criticism arises when scientific progress does not have immediate functional implications or when it happens to contrast with embedded ideas of the local cultural anthropology or with what is intuitively conceived as safer, if not sacred. This tendency is epitomized by the predominant attitude, especially in Western Europe, towards genetically modified organisms in the agriculture and food farming industry. Religious bias also intervenes in the debate over reproduction and birth control alleging these practices to pursue unnatural and then immoral expectations. The implicit or common sense idea of nature is becoming increasingly important in the cultural and political definition of ethically controversial issues arisen by the discourse over the possibility for scientific progress and its technological applications to improve human condition, and on the related potential risks inevitably intertwined with any technological innovation. As you can notice by the debate around the political use that has been have made of the precautionary principle, it is quite paradoxically that scientific methods are taken into account when assessing how ‘natural’ those processes actually are, and what are the actual risks of the assumed interference of new technologies with such processes.

The geographic and especially the geopolitical context plays a major role with regards to this situation. For instance, in Italy the not only cultural but mainly political leverage of the Catholic Church is to be considered to properly understand why and how scientists have became synonymous of people who are threatening human freedom and dignity.

A relevant and somehow recent aspect of these attacks against science and scientists is the manipulation of science by some other scientists that often cynically lend themselves to circulate misleading information or endorse interpretations instrumental to some religious or ideological bias. The role of media is also crucial to this trend. In their effort to dramatize even the scientific debate, journalists usually present scientists as having contrasting visions on a given controversial issue, or they compare empirically established theories with theories that try to prove themselves by diverting the debate on an ideological level. Normally, in the media the tentative and provisional, but evidence based character of scientific explanations are misrepresented as epistemological limits, while the illogical and populist demands for definitive answers or certainties are instrumentally emphasized.

These phenomena are also likely to be a consequence of the poor impact of all the rational arguments presented in the last decades to refute prejudices against science. It is also to be thoroughly considered that the neuropsychological features we possess because of our evolutionary origins may have a role in the general attitude to refuse or regard science as threatening to human dignity and political democracy. After all, in recent years cognitive psychologists and evolutionists along with neurobiologists have indeed been competing to highlight the limits of our much praised rationality. One could speculate that the invention of the modern naturalistic or scientific thought provided in some contexts the conditions to develop rational behaviours leading to the emergence of democratic forms of social organizations. It is also well known that an adequate education fosters the level of individual autonomy needed to fully appreciate the advantages of freedom and self-determination. Consequently, underperforming educational systems, especially in the scientific training, which are typical of countries where education is lead or influenced by religious institutions, do represent a relevant risk factor and may combine to maintain or to bring about totalitarian regimes and anti-scientific movements.

What are the effective strategies to be pursued in order to better analyse problems when facing such complex situations? Probably in the first place it is fundamental to adopt a self-distanced perspective to understand the origin of problems and to investigate those factors that are not immediately responsible for this situation, but that deeply affect the possibility to effectively address a problem. Owing to human psychologocal dynamics and to our brain processing, we do not relate objectively to historical experience, but we rather seek there to sort out elements that support preconceived ideas. Nonetheless any problem, including resistance to scientific progress in some geopolitical contexts, has a genealogy and evolves. For instance, the way religion and politics confront themselves with science has become more complex, and recalling the Galileo trial or the Lyssenko case could not always be best approach to understand the current trends.

Nonetheless as seen in the history of science, science and scientific culture have faced many hurdles throughout modern and contemporary age. Such history shows repeating trends, like the anti-authoritarian and anti-traditionalist nature of science as a triggering factor of conflicts. Political, religious and cultural opposition thwarted scientific progress when it challenged cultural beliefs or grand visions favouring the acquisition of socially normative values, or when it had an impact on embedded cultural customs. Since cultural developments do not integrate in the genetic heritage of species, with every passing generation some achievements may also get lost, especially in terms of scientists’ capability to communicate the importance of freedom of scientific research to society and to political actors.

Not only difficulties challenging science have historically evolved but also strategies adopted by the scientific community to rise above these problems.

Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and within the activities promoted by UNESCO to communicate the principles and values established in the 1948 Declaration, scientists began debating the issue of scientific freedom. The debate was affected by existing threats to scientific freedom, due to the emergence of totalitarian regimes between the two world wars. The perception of the role of scientists during the II World War and the forecoming changes in the organization of scientific research in terms of an increased role of State and politics also played a role in the debate. Independently from the historical context, among others the debate came to the conclusion which is summarized in a 1950 book by astronomer Bart Bok, Freedom of Science: «Freedom of science cannot be maintained unless in the presence of a positive climate in world opinion». Bok’s ideas were that scientists must commit themselves to communicate to society, that freedom of research is fundamental to achieve scientific and technological progress. Therefore, during the past century the scientific communities succeed in communicating to society that science relies on the best possible tools so far invented for solving problems. The results of the past century’s strategies for promoting science were good but always fragile and uncertain, as it can be seen from the problems that science and scientists regularly faced whenever new frontiers to knowledge open up, leading to consequences able to improve human wellbeing but also threaten, at the same time, the most popular and intuitive beliefs.

In the 60s and at the beginning of the 70s there was a greater number of scientists interested in the impact that the new biomedical sciences could produce on society. Prestigious researchers like Jacques Monod, Joshua Lederberg, Francis Crick, Salvador Luria, Konrad Lorenz, Jonas Salk, and many others, tried to build a bridge towards human sciences, claiming at the same time a cultural humanistic statute for science against the drift of a world of knowledge divided into “two cultures�?. Among the most important ideas of that time, that the scientific community sadly abandoned, we can see the demand for recognizing an ethical statute of scientific knowledge. This claim was based on a tradition of sociological studies, which was theoretically much more solid and plausible compared to the most recent approaches inspired by the epistemological relativism of postmodern sociologists. In the light of the evolution of the relationships between science and society for instance Jacques Monod’s message keeps a non instrumental relevance to present as it recognised an ethical choice in the scientist’s support to the postulate of objectivity.

Bioethics and postmodern relativist epistemologies have played a very recent role in trying to confine science and culture in a new totally marginal position within the latest debate about the regulation and the educational strategies which can guarantee and improve the contribute of science and scientists to the citizen’s civic awareness and society’ s civil progress. Inspired by traditional ethical disciplines and above all by a medical ethics based on abstractly defined absolute values, bioethics has probably run out of its propellant push. In their turn, the science and technology studies, that is the sociological approaches inspired by relativist epistemologies, naturally evolved towards an explicit politicization that is getting very close to sectarianism and integralism.

The UNESCO people are no more defending scientific freedom. Obviously influenced by the new climate, UNESCO has issued two important documents about bioethics in the last decade, i.e. the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. These documents strengthen a negative political and cultural perception of science since in some parts they exaggerate the risks related to genetic, genomic and cell biotechnology research developments which are in fact very minimal compared to the benefits that could be generated with regard to human life quality.

Do we also have some elements to be optimistic? I think, that conceptual and methodological progresses of neurobiological, psychological and evolutionistic research offer considerable opportunities for science to gain a more functional and constructive relationship with human sciences. For instance, this is remarkable within the field of neuroethics observations, where the most original and important developments do not originate from the so called reflections on the ethics of neuroscience, but from the neuroscientific studies of ethics, aimed at empirically investigate the origin and the physiology of human morality, also from the social psychology and evolutionistic point of view.

How could it be possible to stimulate a general debate about the freedom of scientific research by taking into account the differences among the contexts and the new opportunities offered by the improvement of the scientific understanding of human sociality? Those who whish to pursue a scientific career and the institutions promoting science and its cultural implications should aim at providing socially useful values to be immediately acquired and perceived as means to the diffusion of individual freedom, trust and respect among people. The objective of scientific diffusion should be to provide citizens, especially children and adolescents who prepare themselves to fully take advantage of civil rights with the cultural instruments to understand the terms of controversies and acquire the knowledge of the best procedures to deal with empirical problem, and the way to evaluate scientific information once presented with it.

How can we do that? Before suggesting my solution, let me highlight a further present difficulty that any discussion about the social dimension of science should take into account. A couple of decades ago, some experts of the relationships between science and politics highlighted a problem that sees journalism playing a growing role within the prescriptive credit of political action and shortening this way the temporal perspective of politics itself. Maybe journalism only acted as a catalyzer, but it is true that a peculiar aspect of today political dynamics are very short time frames for the appreciation of any decision’s practical outcomes. This now represents a compulsory requirement also for science to justify its utility considering its great demand for investments. As a result, financing public bodies became very demanding towards every research project, in terms of applicable outcomes and technological transfers having the task to solve some economic or social problems. However, this condition has threatened scientific authoritativeness under more than one level, including the reliability of internal professional standards.

In other words, the political perception of science is faced with the overwhelming tendency to assign a “normative superiority of the present over the past and the future�?. This kind of attitude surely
facilitates the evaluation of the level of reliability with regard to democratic decision procedures about social and institutional dynamics whose results are rapidly scattered, but on the other hand, they also produce a condition of ahistorical fallacy that culturally impoverishes science and mislead the perception of its epistemological basis.

The ahistorical fallacy, which can be seen as a diffused inability to perceive scientific problems within a wide temporal perspective, leading to the understanding of phenomena and a healthy sense of modesty in scientists, has become a chronic condition for scientists and a large part of the population making use of scientific information in different ways.

All of the studies focusing on the comprehension of the reasons for the fall of scientific vocations, the students’ inability to understand how to scientifically face a problem plus the poor quality of scientific education, believe this fall to be due to the correlation between scientific education or communication and notions and facts. There is a lack of cognitive tools in order to generate and assess scientific tests and explanations leading to a deeper understanding of the nature and development of scientific knowledge and a constructive participation to scientific communication and issues.

Sciences’ communication and teaching should aim at improving the awareness of young people when they are still in the course of their active cognitive development that they judgments are ‘naturally’ biased because of the shortcut heuristics that biological evolution has wired in our brains. Such approach would be of a fundamental importance to provide the useful tools elements to appreciate the liberating value and effectiveness of scientific rationality, that is to say to make emerge a sense of autonomy and self-determination in the individuals.

Gilberto Corbellini (Sapienza – Università di Roma)

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