LETTER:Science is not an easy subject

From Professor Lewis Wolpert

Sir: Tom Wilkie ("Science is for everyone, whatever they try to tell you", 25 March) distorts my views on science. Far from wishing to absolve scientists from any responsibility to society, I have set out their obligations at some length. I have urged that "they must inform the public about the possible implications of their work, and particularly where sensitive social issues arise, they must be clear about the reliability of their studies". I have, however, argued against the scientific community taking moral and ethical decisions on their own "since they have neither the right nor any special skill in this area". To do so would give scientists unwarranted power.

The history of eugenics illustrates the dangers of leaving such decisions to scientists. I am totally committed both to the public understanding of science and to scientists understanding public concerns. The public has to be involved in deciding difficult issues.

Of course science is a social process - we scientists do not need sociologists to tell us that. But some sociologists refuse to recognise that science has provided us with a remarkably reliable understanding of the natural world, and suggest instead that science is merely a social construct, another set of myths. The progress of science is influenced by social factors, but the outcome is determined by the real world.

DNA is the genetic material in our chromosomes that codes for proteins and has nothing to do with social factors. That is why I can agree with Tom Wilkie that science is "one of the pinnacles of our civilisation's achievement". But like it or not, science is not simple, it is all too often mathematical and difficult. The world is built that way. It is this that provides a major challenge for public understanding.

Yours faithfully,


School of Medicine

University College, London

London, W1

25 March