Roald Hoffman: Scientists must accept public fears of their work

From a lecture given by the Nobel chemistry laureate, poet and playwright, at the University of Westminster
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The Independent Online

In our time, as never before, thinking people see the benefit of chemistry, and yet they find pollution morally revulsive and are fearful of the potential harm of chemicals to our bodies and our Earth. Perhaps a Janus image is emblematic of these perceptions of my science, and of all of science. I accept that image, and the duality of harm and benefit behind it, because I accept human beings for what they are – not angels, and not machines – capable of good and of evil. And Janus was the god of doors, the ultimate symbol of passage, from here to there, with a choice implied. I like doors.

In our time, as never before, thinking people see the benefit of chemistry, and yet they find pollution morally revulsive and are fearful of the potential harm of chemicals to our bodies and our Earth. Perhaps a Janus image is emblematic of these perceptions of my science, and of all of science. I accept that image, and the duality of harm and benefit behind it, because I accept human beings for what they are – not angels, and not machines – capable of good and of evil. And Janus was the god of doors, the ultimate symbol of passage, from here to there, with a choice implied. I like doors.

Another reason why I am not perturbed by the public's conflicted perception of my field, is that I see the seeds of that ambivalence in the very nature of the subject. Chemistry is about substances or molecules and their transformations. It is deeply and fundamentally about change. And while human beings have a romantic spiritual valuation of change, the reality is that change is inherently fraught with danger and often resisted, by individuals and even more so by societies. No wonder the science of change will be viewed in different, conflicted ways by thinking and feeling human beings.

Think of the last 200 years. Incredible things were given to us by other human beings, in art, music, and social structure – who will question the spiritual and material value of War and Peace, or a Bonnard interior, a Beethoven quartet? Or the end of slavery, the empowerment of women. But if one gathers one's courage to weigh the incommensurate, and thinks of the greatest gain in our understanding of the world within us and around us in these two centuries, I think one cannot avoid singling out science.

The achievements of science are of value to humanity in material and spiritual ways. My own chemistry has so much to be proud of – the extension of life expectancy from 40 years to 70 (in part of the world), birth control, synthetic fertilisers to feed twice as many people as could have been fed before, a greater colour palette for all. Science is democratising in the deepest sense of the word – it makes available to a wider range of people the necessities and comforts that in a previous age were reserved for a privileged few.

The achievement is also spiritual. I speak of the direct spiritual value, of knowledge gained of how genetic information is transmitted, or stars are born. A knowledge that may not be of material value, will not make millions, is unpatentable but still makes the human spirit soar. Given this incredible gain in our knowledge, and the ever-so-clear material improvements in our life span and comfort, it remains clear that people are not any happier than they were, say, 100 years ago. And that they do not praise the achievements of science and technology with enthusiasm, but question them. Or are suspicious of them.

To push these concerns aside as unthinking, uninformed anti-intellectual opposition is to miss the point. Real, smart, normal, thinking and feeling people are concerned about where science is going, what it is doing to people's lives.

The concern is often couched in ecological and ethical terms. So genetic engineering and cloning are one lightning rod. So are seed crops which cannot be replanted. And nuclear energy. Some of my colleagues are puzzled by this. Some are bitter, and blame the media for chemophobia. Well, the media haven't changed. Bad news was good journalism always. In 1960 I lived a year in Russia, one of the few societies in which you got a totally favourable press about the chemical industry.

There is a message for us, as scientists, in the seemingly ambivalent response of the public to the melioration of the human condition and the enrichment of our knowledge that science has wrought. It is a message that science needs to learn from as it progresses. Science is not immutable, it is a socially and intellectually adaptable system.

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