Remembering the past and recognizing the limits of science …

A recent article in the Guardian reports on a debate at University College London (1) on whether to rename buildings because the people honored harbored odious ideological and political positions. Similar debates and decisions, in some cases involving unacceptable and abusive behaviors rather than ideological positions, have occurred at a number of institutions (see Calhoun at Yale, Sackler in NYC, James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor, Tim Hunt at the MRC, and sexual predators within the National Academy of Sciences). These debates raise important and sometimes troubling issues.

When a building is named after a scientist, it is generally in order to honor that person’s scientific contributions. The scientist’s ideological opinions are rarely considered explicitly, although they may influence the decision at the time.  In general, scientific contributions are timeless in that they represent important steps in the evolution of a discipline, often by establishing a key observation, idea, or conceptual framework upon which subsequent progress is based – they are historically important.  In this sense, whether a scientific contribution was correct (as we currently understand the natural world) is less critical than what that contribution led to. The contribution marks a milestone or a turning point in a discipline, understanding that the efforts of many underlie disciplinary progress and that those contributors made it possible for others to “see further.” (2)

Since science is not about recognizing or establishing a single unchanging capital-T-Truth, but rather about developing an increasingly accurate model for how the world works, it is constantly evolving and open to revision.  Working scientists are not particularly upset when new observations lead to revisions to or the abandonment of ideas or the addition of new terms to equations.(3)

Compare that to the situation in the ideological, political, or religious realms.  A new translation or interpretation of a sacred text can provoke schism and remarkably violent responses between respective groups of believers. The closer the groups are to one another, the more horrific the levels of violence that emerge often are.  In contrast, over the long term, scientific schools of thought resolve, often merging with one another to form unified disciplines. From my own perspective, and not withstanding the temptation to generate new sub-disciplines (in part in response to funding factors), all of the life sciences have collapsed into a unified evolutionary/molecular framework.  All scientific disciplines tend to become, over time, consistent with, although not necessarily deducible from, one another, particularly when the discipline respects and retains connections to the real (observable) world.(4)  How different from the political and ideological.

The historical progression of scientific ideas is dramatically different from that of political, religious, or social mores.  No matter what some might claim, the modern quantum mechanical view of the atom bears little meaningful similarity to the ideas of the cohort that included Leucippus and Democritus.  There is progress in science.  In contrast, various belief systems rarely abandon their basic premises.  A politically right- or left-wing ideologue might well find kindred spirits in the ancient world.  There were genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists in the past and there are genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists now.  There were (limited) democracies then, as there are (limited) democracies now; monarchical, oligarchical, and dictatorial political systems then and now; theistic religions then and now. Absolutist ideals of innate human rights, then as now, are routinely sacrificed for a range of mostly self-serving or politically expedient reasons.  Advocates of rule by the people repeatedly install repressive dictatorships. The authors of the United States Constitution declare the sacredness of human rights and then legitimized slavery. “The Bible … posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites.” (Phil Christman). The eugenic movement is a good example; for the promise of a genetically perfect future, existing people are treated inhumanely – just another version of apocalyptic (ends justify the means) thinking. 

Ignoring the simpler case of not honoring criminals (sexual and otherwise), most calls for removing names from buildings are based on the odious ideological positions espoused by the honored – typically some version of racist, nationalistic, or sexist ideologies.  The complication comes from the fact that people are complex, shaped by the context within which they grow up, their personal histories and the dominant ideological milieu they experienced, as well as their reactions to it.  But these ideological positions are not scientific, although a person’s scientific worldview and their ideological positions may be intertwined. The honoree may claim that science “says” something unambiguous and unarguable, often in an attempt to force others to acquiesce to their perspective.  A modern example would be arguments about whether climate is changing due to anthropogenic factors, a scientific topic, and what to do about it, an economic, political, and perhaps ideological question.(5)

So what to do?  To me, the answer seems reasonably obvious – assuming that the person’s contribution was significant enough, we should leave the name in place and use the controversy to consider why they held their objectionable beliefs and more explicitly why they were wrong to claim scientific justification for their ideological (racist / nationalist / sexist / socially prejudiced) positions.(6)  Consider explicitly why an archeologist (Flinders Petrie), a naturalist (Francis Galton), a statistician (Karl Pearson), and an advocate for women’s reproductive rights (Marie Stopes) might all support the non-scientific ideology of eugenics and forced sterilization.  We can use such situations as a framework within which to delineate the boundaries between the scientific and the ideological. 

Understanding this distinction is critical and is one of the primary justifications for why people not necessarily interested in science or science-based careers are often required to take science courses.  Yet all too often these courses fail to address the constraints of science, the difference between political and ideological opinions, and the implications of scientific models.  I would argue that unless students (and citizens) come to understand what constitutes a scientific idea or conclusion and what reflects a political or ideological position couched in scientific or pseudo-scientific terms, they are not learning what they need to know about science or its place in society.  That science is used as a proxy for Truth writ large is deeply misguided. It is much more important to understand how science works than it is to remember the number of phyla or the names of amino acids, the ability to calculate the pH of a solution, or to understand processes going on at the center of a galaxy or the details of a black hole’s behavior.  While sometimes harmless, misunderstanding science and how it is used socially can result in traumatic social implications, such as drawing harmful conclusions about individuals from statistical generalizations of populations, avoidable deaths from measles, and the forced “eugenic” sterilization of people deemed defective.  We should seek out and embrace opportunities to teach about these issues, even if it means we name buildings after imperfect people.  

footnotes:

  1. The location of some of my post-doc work.
  2. In the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
  3.  Unless, of course, the ideas and equations being revised or abandoned are one’s own. 
  4.  Perhaps the most striking exception occurs in physics on the subjects of quantum mechanics and relativity, but as I am not a physicist, I am not sure about that. 
  5.  Perhaps people are “meant” to go extinct. 
  6.  The situation is rather different outside of science, because the reality of progress is more problematic and past battles continue to be refought.  Given the history of Reconstruction and the Confederate “Lost Cause” movement [see PBS’s Reconstruction] following the American Civil War, monuments to defenders of slavery, no matter how admirable they may have been in terms of personal bravery and such, reek of implied violence, subjugation, and repression, particularly when the person honored went on to found an institution dedicated to racial hatred and violent intimidation [link]. There would seem little doubt that a monument in honor of a Nazi needs to be eliminated and replaced by one to their victims or to those who defeated them.