Science: The Purity Myth

How politics taints science.

The relationship between science and politics has never been simple. For some, the two should never be mixed; for others, the two can never be separated. When the role of science in formulating public policy was discussed by two high-profile science communicators recently – physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince – there was a lively response. It’s very heartening to see how much engagement and argument this issue can provoke. But who’s got it right?

At face value, the recommendations for “good practice for the provision of scientific advice for public policy” offered by the Royal Society’s president, Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, seem hard to contest:

“Scientific advice should be based on the totality of observation and experiment, be based on rational argument, and reflect the consensus views of expert scientists, views which have been rigorously peer reviewed by other independent experts. If there is no strong consensus or if knowledge is still tentative, then these uncertainties should be reflected in the advice. As far as possible, the science should be kept separate from political, ideological and religious influence.”

That very much echoes the position put forward by Cox and Ince: let science do its job properly, and argue afterwards over what to do with its findings. But historians of science, among others, counter that science doesn’t work that way, and never has. The very agendas of science – what it chooses to study or ignore – are shaped by its sociopolitical context. One of the foremost proponents of this perspective is the historian Paul Forman, who in the 1970s argued that physicists in Weimar Germany in the inter-war years shaped early quantum theory to fit the zeitgeist, which was dominated by anti-materialism, anti-rationalism and an obsession with crises.

Forman’s thesis has been disputed, but is acknowledged as one of the most influential studies ever conducted in the history of science. He went on to explore the political influences on American research in physics between 1940 and 1960, arguing that military funding redirected even “basic” research into areas concerned with applications, in particular with military uses.

Even if there’s plenty of scope for argument here, such studies challenge the self-image of many scientists as seekers after truths untainted by grubby politics. Perhaps the most damning assessment of that belief came in Joseph Haberer’s 1969 study of physics under the Third Reich. Pointing out that two German Nobel laureate physicists, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, had concocted the absurd and racist distinction of “Aryan” versus “Jewish” physics, Haberer commented that:

“The real issue involves how it was possible for men trained in the sciences, like Lenard and Stark, to become fanatical National Socialists. If Nobel laureates can be so infected, what protection does scientific training and practice provide against the excesses of irrational personal, economic, social or political conduct? Most scientists have tended to assume that they (more than any other professional type) follow the paths of rational, disinterested, and even humane conduct. The evidence increasingly demonstrates that scientists as a whole are no more immune to the ailments of political man than other men.” [J. Haberer, Politics and the Community of Science, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969]

Haberer pointed out that, precisely because many German physicists insisted on regarding their work as “apolitical” and as occupying a higher plane than the appalling realities of the Nazi state, they had little difficulty in justifying to themselves why they pursued their careers under Hitler’s regime. His judgement sounds worryingly applicable to suggestions like those of Nurse that the scientist’s duty is simply to offer the best objective, technical assessments to those in power:

“The failure of scientists has lain in their moral obtuseness, in their incapacity to define, delineate or even to recognise the nature of the problem of responsibility. Characteristically, responsibility has been recognised only in its narrower sense. Scientists have been willing to be held responsible [only] for the calibre of their scientific work; or when acting in administrative positions for their performance in terms of the formal responsibilities attached to their positions.”

Werner Heisenberg, who led the German research into nuclear energy during the war and acted as a willing propagandist for German science in occupied countries, congratulated himself and his colleagues after the war for their success in wringing funding from the Nazi authorities to carry on what they wanted to research anyway. Their primary aim, they said, was to guide German science through the storm. It wasn’t the scientist’s job to bother themselves about the grand “movements of thought” that determine history, said Heisenberg:

“We should conscientiously fulfill the duties and tasks that life presents to us without asking much about the why or the wherefore.”

His one-time colleague Peter Debye, a colossus of German physics (although he was Dutch) who left Germany just after the outbreak of war to study in the USA, espoused the same view. In 1937 he explained that “It is always my custom to ask myself in what way I can be most useful for physics. That is the first consideration for me and other more personal considerations play a more secondary role.”

The point here is not to condemn Debye and Heisenberg for making choices that, from our comfortable platform in a modern Western democracy, now look questionable. It’s to point out that there are grave dangers in insisting too strongly on the fundamental distinction between science and politics. Cox, Ince and Nurse are quite right to demand that scientific findings be presented and considered as objectively as possible, not as a mere point of view among many others but as the best interpretation available of questions about the physical world, with all the necessary uncertainties and caveats carefully explained. Those who abuse science’s greatest virtue – its contingency and openness to revision – to try to undermine its authority should be exposed for their sophistry.

But history offers stark lessons in why we should never lose sight of the limitations of this perspective on science’s role in society. For one thing, science is inherently political: for instance, in its pursuit of funding (much of which is military), its hierarchies of status, its vulnerability to fads and trends, and the questions it selects and neglects (in drug development, say). Not all questions science addresses – for example, in biomedicine and genetics, psychology and behaviour, civil and nuclear engineering – have clear boundaries between the “scientific” and the social or political. But perhaps most of all, scientists would be advised to resist (as many already do admirably) any self-mythologising as impartial seekers of truth whose mission transcends questions of politics and responsibility. Heisenberg is not a good advertisement for that position.


Philip Ball’s book Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler, is published in paperback by Vintage, and shortlisted for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

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