Science Friday
Treat science right and it could help save the world
Saving the planet....I don't know whether we can do it, but we need everybody in the world to recognize [that] this is our biggest problem.Nicholas Sinclair

Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene (the molecules commonly known as buckyballs), is a chemist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. His research interests extend from the microworld of nanoparticles to the chemistry of interstellar space. He also campaigns for a new vision of science education, emphasizing the responsibilities that scientists have for cooperating internationally to support efforts aimed at securing a sustainable future for the planet. He spoke on such matters recently at the Euroscience Open Forum 2010 conference in Turin, Italy. Science News editor in chief Tom Siegfried reports excerpts from Kroto’s talk.

My definition of science — and it’s an arid term, and almost no one really understands it as far as I’m concerned: The most important aspect of science is that it’s a philosophical construct, which man (and woman) has developed to determine what is true, might be true and can be true. 

Once one [accepts] that, one puts science on a very interesting philosophical level, because truth must be universal and must not vary from country to country or planet to planet. Truth assumes that the experiment will always work the same way. That suggests that, basically, it won’t work differently if you pray to the experiment....

Truth is an intellectual integrity issue. I want to stress that…. So for science education, this is an ethical issue. We should be teaching our children how to determine what is true. It depends on evidence. Without evidence, anything goes. And we must teach young people how to recognize the truth. And that’s why there is a conflict between science and dogma, both political and religious. Texas is desecrating science textbooks, and thus the truth....

We have to weigh the evidence in the balance, and science therefore equals truth. John F. Kennedy said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”...

I have a four-out-of-five rule for scientific method. Here it is: If you make an observation, develop a theory you think can explain it. Then design some further experiments to test the validity of that theory. If four observations out of five fit, the theory is almost, and I stress almost, certainly right. If only one out of five fits, the theory is almost, almost certainly wrong. We can never say it was wrong. But we can say it’s almost certainly wrong. We must leave the way open for that element of doubt....

This is a moral issue. Let’s get it straight. Science is about evidence and truth. And that’s why we have to think about these things....

The issue we face today is sustainability. Saving the planet  — it’s a global citizenship project. We cannot do it by ourselves.… I don’t know whether we can do it, but we need everybody in the world to recognize [that] this is our biggest problem. We’ve got to recognize science as the one community that is international. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what nationality, language you speak. Scientific language is fundamental…. And that makes us different from every other culture. We’re international, we’re global....

I want to make sure that you understand what science and what the responsibility of the scientist is. If you’re a scientist, you have a responsibility. We have created this world, this technology. We’ve done the science. And I think, and I personally believe, we should take some responsibility to ensure it is used for the benefit of mankind, and not to its detriment. If you’re a physicist, we don’t need any more atomic bombs. If you’re a chemist, we don’t need any improvements in napalm, and if you’re an engineer, we don’t need any more land mines. There are people who really feel strongly. Leon Lederman, [who was] head of [Fermilab] and got the Nobel Prize in physics, said, “So many years have passed and the human race is still saddled with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet. We must redouble our efforts to unify the science community against this huge stupidity.”...

Scientists have enemies now out there who are trying to destroy science…. It’s not just against evolution. It’s about truth. It’s much more fundamental…. It’s about science, it’s about your culture, it’s about how children and adults should determine what is true. And therefore you have an enemy, the enemies who want to undermine the ability of young people and adults to find out what is actually true, on the basis of evidence. Don’t underestimate that one....

Destroy the planet? It doesn’t look good. I look at the evidence. Four out of five [indicators] suggest ... that we’ve got a problem. Not only that, our children have a problem, and our grandchildren almost certainly seem to have a problem. I’m not sure. But I said almost certainly.

Comments 10
  • Whatta mush-moosh of appeals to integrity and social activism! I bet he's a believer in CAGW, which means his actual scientific integrity is 0 out of 5.
    Brian Hall Brian Hall
    Aug. 15, 2010 at 8:57am
  • WRONG. A scientist's first duty is to be OBJECTIVE. Being precise with one's language is mandatory. I see none of that here.

    I don't know precisely what he means by "saving the planet" and "sustainability", but I'm almost certainly sure that he's referring to the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

    Being objective, among other things, means keeping politics and social activism strictly out of your analysis. He hasn't even tried to do that.
    Jerry Malone Jerry Malone
    Aug. 15, 2010 at 3:02pm
  • Jerry Malone said: "Being objective, among other things, means keeping politics and social activism strictly out of your analysis. He hasn't even tried to do that."

    I disagree completely. Since science is the closest method we have to arrive objectively at the truth, and science does not discriminate against any person or country (hence is as universal as it gets) it is essential to include scientific analysis in forming governmental policy and action. Science can and should have a political and social impact precisely because of its objectivity and universality. It is faith and untestable beliefs that should have no role in government or public education. After all, faith is subjective by definition, and thus as few as two people can believe diametrically opposite things. Which of those two then is right? Scientific reason permits discussion and disagreement when the observations are inconsistent or insufficient to eliminate conflicting hypotheses. The things is, the scientific method leads to an understanding of that uncertainty, and that is what keeps dogma from dominating over reason.

    If we don't allow reason to guide our politics, we are going to wipe ourselves out in an unspeakably tragic manner. This is what motivates scientists to take social action.
    Peter Kaczkowski
    PKaczkowski PKaczkowski
    Aug. 15, 2010 at 4:59pm
  • PKaczkowski,

    You've got it backwards.

    I said "Being objective, among other things, means keeping politics and social activism strictly out of your analysis."

    When you analyze data, you do it with social objectives in mind? For example, when you publish global temperature data, do you deliberately alter thermometer readings by adding increasing trendlines to your raw data? (Jim Hanson does!) Or do you cherry-pick your data by ignoring inconvenient cooling trends? (Michael Mann does!) Or do you first publish a report of recommended policy actions, and then, afterward, begin the research to support it? (The IPCC does!)

    This type of behavior is the norm, rather than the exception, in AGW research. It's disgraceful, and it's simply not science. If you apriori fix a hypothesis, then you are at best biased, and usually deluded. As Newton said, "I do not fix hypotheses." (Of course, Newton was a physicist, not a climatologist.)

    Kroto does not even tell us precisely what "science" he's referring to. And he does not bother to quantify his level of certainty, either. Is he 99.9% certain? Or only 10% certain? Like most of the AGW crowd, he just assumes that we all know what he's talking about and that we agree with him. He also doesn't mention the the cost/benefit of "sustainability".

    It's the usual vague, post-modern strategy: repeat an opinion for a political end and justify it by calling it science. And when that fails, call it a consensus. (Not that consensus has any role in science.)

    I am interested in real, objective, traditional science. Give me some concrete conclusions, with error bars, and then we can talk about "saving the earth".

    Jerry Malone Jerry Malone
    Aug. 15, 2010 at 9:29pm
  • Science, like technology in general, is guided by policy. In other words, the science behind building the atomic bomb wouldn't have been funded unless someone had asked the question: "would it be possible to build a bomb that harnessed the energy released by splitting/fusing an atom?" Furthermore, someone had to not only ask the question, they had to decide to answer it.

    In other words, science can and must be objective, but it also by definition is done within a social context. You cannot have science without funding, and it has always been the case, even in the days of yore, since science, like it or not, is a social activity.
    1209157 1209157
    Aug. 17, 2010 at 12:07pm
  • Treat Science Right

    "Treat science right and it could help save the world"

    Science, not Scientists, and certainly not "scientists'" trade union members, members of the AAAS = American Association Against Science, whose only goal is obtaining public funds by a variety of anti-science means.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments from 22nd century)
    Dov Henis Dov Henis
    Aug. 18, 2010 at 2:57am
  • In my opinion science should treat people right. Science should be expected to save the world because the scientists are the ones that caused all these problems. If not for science we wouldn't have global warming or ozone depletion or polluted air and water. Everything would still be pristeen and pure like God intended it to be.Yes there is a God. So mr. scientist I think you should stop wasting time writing articles and get down to the task of saving the world. After all it's partly your fault. Oh, and siciece you caused all this on the tax payers back you should do this on your own dime.
    Prentice Price Prentice Price
    Aug. 18, 2010 at 5:35pm
  • Hey folks,
    I'm a little unsure what you are participating in Science News forums for, ...other than to look for something to vent against. Dr. Kroto presents a clear and cogent argument, and other than a few reasonable assertions that science and society are intertwined, I don't see anything except, "he's wrong and that's all there is to it" in many of your comments.

    My suggestion is to log off, read articles if you wish, but stay out of the forum, which should be discussing science (and society). We have a very scientifically illiterate society, and Dr. Kroto makes a very basic statement about the basis of science: "The most important aspect of science is that it’s a philosophical construct, which man (and woman) has developed to determine what is true, might be true and can be true." Let's pursue that path rather than make personal attacks and unfounded statements based on our beliefs.
    Anthony Kerwin Anthony Kerwin
    Aug. 20, 2010 at 1:08pm
  • Goofy, Tony K. Science is: develop a hypothesis, develop tests of the hypothesis, test, document, modify the hypothesis, and start over. Only humans can save the world, and only if they debunk egocentric nutjobs who believe what they read as Time chronically misses what science is (or those who exalt science in misguided comments here on Science News).
    Silverstatebob Silverstatebob
    Aug. 22, 2010 at 12:59am
  • Mr. Silverstatebob: Science is as you stated it, which is the philosophical construct I was refering to. ...and yes, only humans can save the world, and I would have to agree with Dr. Kroto, through science. Do you have a better method to use? It's not going to be through social constructs, politics or pseudoscience...
    Anthony Kerwin Anthony Kerwin
    Aug. 25, 2010 at 12:01pm
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