Who’s more truthful — scientists or politicos?

Who’s more honest: Politicians or scientists?

Normally I wouldn’t have to ask a stupid question like that, since the answer would be obvious. But the recent wars over evolution have created a sense in many parts of the American public that scientists are liars — venal elites who refuse to accept Intelligent Design arguments that supposedly disprove Darwinism. Indeed, some of our most prominent politicians — like Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum — are pushing this line, even as they advocate for legislation that would require science teachers to present blatantly unscientific speculation to students.

In this context, the recent debacle over Hwang Woo Suk did not help the cause of science. As you’ve no doubt heard, the South Korean scientist was recently discovered to have blatantly fabricated data claiming he’d successfully created 11 stem cell lines that genetically matched patients, and that he’d cloned a human embryo and extracted its stem cells. And, as you’d expect, this only further fuelled the idea that godless stem-cell researchers will stop at nothing to violate the will of God and kill embryos for fun and profit.

So I was intrigued to open up this week’s Science section of the New York Times and read an interview with Douglas Melton, head of Harvard’s famous embryonic stem-cell research lab. At one point, the reporter asks an interesting question:

Q. Were you ever skeptical of Dr. Hwang as he reported a succession of breakthroughs in human stem cell research?

A. I’d like to tell you I suspected something. I didn’t. When his papers were published, I read them carefully. I was impressed by the speed and the efficiency by which he’d cloned a human embryo. We hadn’t done those experiments ourselves. So I didn’t know how difficult it would be in humans.

I met Dr. Hwang and his colleagues several times. He didn’t seem nutty, squirrely or deceptive or anything like that.

This is a perfect example of the sort of wonderful candor one typically gets from a respected scientist. When asked an honest question, he gives an honest answer — even when it makes him look bad. Now play this little thought experiment: Can you imagine a politician, or any of the ultrapoliticized advocates of Intelligent Design, being anywhere near as truthful about their motivations and mistakes?

Of course you can’t, because both of those latter camps worship power, not truth. Being truthful and accurate would get in the way of their access to power, so they lie and dissemble without the slightest moral concern. As soon as Jack Abramoff gets in legal trouble, his former Republican cohorts — so happy to cash his checks and award him “Pioneer” status as a top Bush fundraiser — blatantly lie and claim they were never close to him. And while Intelligent Design advocates claim they are merely trying to offer a scientific alternative to Darwinism for the students in Dover, Pennsylvania, the judge who considered their case blasted them for overtly concealing political motivations that they are only too happy to proclaim to their flocks.

Of course, it’s obvious why scientists would be truthful. Their operating principle is the scientific method — a system that demands data be provided to back up assertions, prizes transparency, and refuses to take anyone on their word. In science, it doesn’t matter how much you believe something is true, or how ardently you proclaim it; you have to prove it. And the system is designed to catch fraud quickly — because your discoveries aren’t considered valid until someone else independently verifies them. What’s more, in science, if you make an honest mistake — and, without deceit, propose a theory that winds up being proven false — there’s no shame in it. Indeed, that’s precisely how science works.

The upshot? You get a discipline that is the precise opposite of politics — and which produces people who tend to prize honesty and candor. You get Melton, instead of the hordes of far-right Republicans whose fundamental mendacity appears to have neither limits nor shame.

More proof, as I never tire of saying, that the scientific method is one of humanity’s finest moral products.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson