A Review Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science: Why Science Does Not Make Common)

 

A Review Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science: Why Science Does Not Make Common)
Sense. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994 (originally, London: Faber
and Faber, 1992).

The Unnatural Nature of Science is written by an embryologist who feels misunderstood. He also
sees science as under attack by sociologists. Here he's working in a field in which, he admits, he
has no formal training and, though he says he got help, unfortunately, it was not nearly enough.
He's in way over his head. There are, simply, some awful boo-boos in this book. Now we all
know that errors can be embarrassing but some can be fatal and, unfortunately for Wolpert, his
misunderstanding of sociology and history reveal that he doesn't understand what the critics are
saying. He sees sociologists as attacking and, simply, they are not. They have a very different
view of science than he: science, to sociologists - at least this one - is the behavior of scientists.

Wolpert sees science as something else, something he calls "uncommon sense." And he wants
the attacks of sociologists to stop because, to him, science is special. Simply put: to Wolpert,
science is good, true and beautiful and anyone who contaminates it with human behaviors is
misinterpreting the good, true and beautiful. If anyone misbehaves, that ain't science it's
misbehavior. If anyone cheats, that cheating and it can't be science ‘cause science is good, true
and beautiful. Wolpert has it that science is disembodied, conceptual, independent of thinkers.
No wonder he thinks it's special: he's got it in never-never land.

The only reference to work by Wolpert in the Scifraud database is a book review he wrote for the
New York Times Book Review in May, 1995. That is of Gerald Geison's wonderful analysis of
Louis Pasteur's notebooks. Regular readers of Scifraud will appreciate that Geison's analysis of
Pasteur's behavior, based on Pasteur's secret notebooks, was remarkably revealing: Pasteur was
nothing less than misleading, dishonest and unethical in many of the things he did. But, frankly,
it makes no nevermind to this determined realist; here's how Wolpert interprets Pasteur:

Mr. Geison thinks the episodes he examines have a contemporary message: science, like any
other form of culture, relies on rhetoric; objective, value-free science may be a myth. In fact, no
matter how brilliant a scientist's rhetoric, in the long run the truth will out. Social factors
influence the course of science; the outcome is determined by nature.

What this life of Pasteur shows is how complex, hard and imaginative scientific discovery is, and
that it requires a variety of skills rarely found in one person. Mr. Geison has gone some way to
deconstruct the myth of Pasteur and the belief that all of his science is pure and beautiful, but
most of Pasteur's beautiful science still shines brightly. Dishonesty is the antithesis of the
scientific endeavor; yet we can be grateful to Pasteur in spite of his misdemeanors.

See, Pasteur's beautiful science still shines brightly. Wolpert's assumptions are set. And
Pasteur's misbehavior is irrelevant. The only way that anyone can say such a thing after reading
Geison's book is to have science as something special indeed: it is not the product of humans
but... What is it?

To Wolpert, human behavior does not matter in science. If the scientist cheats his way to a Nobel
prize or large grants from government, that has no bearing on "science." So, the awful gaffes of
Wolpert in his interpretations of history are also a nevermind. And one can readily understand
why none of Wolpert's editors or reviewers pointed out his errors for they, like the author
himself, did not understand the sociological enterprise. Scientists like Wolpert and sociologists
are not communicating.

Consider the following from Wolpert: "Briefly, Alfred Wegener, a relatively unknown German
geologist put forward the idea, quite astounding in 1920s, that the continents of Africa and South
American were once joined... There was enormous opposition... Among the reasons why his
arguments were rejected were that they required a major rethink of geological concepts..." (p. 91)
This is a very revealing blunder in that the opposition to Wegener's ideas were, in good measure,
based on Wegener's being a meteorologist and not a geologist. He was simply, geologists said,
"out of his field." He was treading in geological turf which had to be protected professionally.
Geologists did not have to listen to his wacky ideas because he was an outsider. The substance of
the argument, then, was not continental drift but professional turf. And to miss that point is to
miss the social nature of the "scientific" argument. That insiders, 30 and more years after
Wegener's death, came to the same knowledge is nothing more than the profession's eventual
co-optation of the idea.

The same sort of revealing misrepresentation occurs in his telling of Pasteur's successes: "Louis
Pasteur, the outstanding French biologist and doctor, had a reputation for being lucky. At the age
of twenty-five, shortly after receiving his medical qualification..." (p. 79) Louis Pasteur was a
chemist and not a physician or a biologist. Again, the gaffe is telling: Pasteur's work encroached
on the turf of the physicians and they claimed, and nearly nailed him on, "practicing medicine
without a license." Again, Wolpert fails to understand that these arguments were not stated in
"scientific" but in social terms. (I assume that in his reading of Geison's book [1995] Wolpert
learned that Pasteur was not a physician but, even so, I doubt that it changed his mind a whit.)

In describing Millikan's finessing of the Nobel prize, Wolpert opines "It may be characteristic of
great scientists to know what to leave out." (p. 72) Yes, it is important to leave the name of a
co-author and major contributor to one's initial paper on a subject; yet, the next five papers
Millikan published concerning the electrostatic charge all displayed the name of Harvey Fletcher.
Wolpert attributes Millikan's prize to greatness; that's pure puffery. Indeed, the very idea of the
oil-drop experiment was not Millikan's but Fletcher's.

And Wolpert has much to say about Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA:
"James Watson and Francis Crick worked out the structure of DNA from both its chemical
properties and X-ray diffraction. They required an enormous amount of background knowledge,
and they worked very hard to get the answer." (p. 9) What is not mentioned here is that the
photograph of the structure of DNA they used to discern that structure was not the work of Crick
or Watson but the (borrowed? stolen?) work of Rosalind Franklin who, somehow, is not
mentioned in this glowing tribute to hard work and genius.

And Darwin's genius, so deftly disguised in his early years, is used to explain The Origin...
which, I am happy to insist, derives from an entirely different provenance: Darwin's race to best
Alfred Russel Wallace, the Linnean meeting of July 1858, and the chicane of Lyell and Hooker,
along with the work of 20+ years. That does not add up to genius.

There are other examples but, enough! I'll add to this only my dissatisfaction with the nonsense
about genius and creativity Wolpert displays. He has this claptrap about scientists: "they have
stamina, devotion, psychic courage, and ‘character,' and they work very hard at problems." (p.
69) I've not read that sort of thing since Millikan's reviews, in the late 20s, of Thomas A. Edison
and the American Dream. Millikan's function in writing those pieces in Science was to sell the
American people on science in service to the country; Millikan worked to have the taxpayer be
prepared to support science. And, in a very real sense, this is what Wolpert seems to be doing:
propagandizing. And, maybe that is why Harvard University Press republished this on the cheap
(and did nothing to emend the errors).

Wolpert displays an amazing naivete regarding the history and sociology of science. He seems to
know nothing more than myths of science passed on to frosh in introductory courses in the
sciences. His adolescent ardor for science is an embarrassment.