In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to
humankind. This makes him a hero to scientists who pride themselves on their
ability to transform and "conquer" nature, and who consider the natural world the
rightful laboratory for their experiments. The apotheosis of Promethean science
was the atomic bomb, which once again stole the gods' fire for mortal use.
But science has a powerful, competing tradition. In medieval times the scientific
enterprise was rescued from stagnation in alchemy by measurement, not conquest.
Advances in optics and navigational instruments helped launch the age of
discovery and helped astronomers understand and explain the universe,
particularly the movement of heavenly bodies. Copernicus, who established that
Earth revolves around the sun, is the archetype for this approach to science.
Copernican tradition seeks to explain and understand, not necessarily change, the
world. Through observation, Copernicans are continually reminded how complex the
world is, and how little of it they comprehend. Consequently, there is a certain
humility in their enterprisealthough that quality, is not, of course, exclusive
to any group. (The great Prometheans who unleashed the atomic bomb werewith the
notable exception of Edward Tellerprofoundly humbled by the experience.)
Four years ago in this column I criticized the Promethean wing's dominance in the
scientific establishment. I am happy to report that times have changed.
Evidence of this shift is found in the pages of Science magazine, the house organ of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Traditionally, its editorial
page has been ruled by old-school Prometheans like former editor Daniel Koshland,
who proclaimed that "it is the nature of scientists to advocate change more than
most people do," while regularly belittling environmental concerns.
however, Science's new editors boldly showcased a break with this ethos. A
special edition on human-dominated ecosystems featured an editorial by former
Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland strongly urging that environmental
protection policy be built on a combination of scientific evidence, global
equity, and fairness to future generations. Articlesall marked by a becoming
humilityfocused on the decline of fisheries, the fate of coral reefs, and the
potential of conservation biology in restoring ecosystems.
Events in the political world over the past four years have helped change how scientists
view the natural world. One such transformative event was the ascendancy of House
Speaker Newt Gingrich's team in Washington. Gingrich may be a science buff, but
his House leadership included throwbacks to the antiscience attitudes of the
Scopes trial. House Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), for example, denounced Nobel
laureates as radical ideologues, the hole in the ozone layer as a liberal plot,
and global warming as "junk science." Finally, when far-right congressional
budget slicers mounted an assault on public support for basic research and
invited the antiscience wing of the religious right into their inner councils,
many American scientists recognized a new danger to the integrity of their
Another development that threatens the status of science is the
increasing boldness with which industry funds researchers to parrot its views on
topics like global warming and clean air. These Promethean contrarians offer the
promise of profligate energy use and industrial expansion with no negative
consequences, but rarely publish in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and
sometimes show a cavalier disregard for basic scientific norms. The Promethean
view on global warming, for example, is not laid out in scientific journals, but
in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Copernican scientists are
fighting back. Two examples are Sierra Club Vice President Anne Ehrlich and her
husband, Paul, both fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Their
most recent book, The Betrayal of Science and Reason, documents the shoddy
science behind anti-environmental "fables," and strongly defends the scientific
method. The Ehrlichs' arguments are made more compelling by the enormous recent
advances in the powers of observation and measurement on which Copernican science
depends. In centuries past, technological change was explosively fueled
(sometimes literally so) by the discovery of new chemical and physical reactions.
Science was much better at effecting changes in the world than at understanding
what those changes meant for the world.
But in recent decades, technological
innovation has largely shifted to the fields of electronics and genetics. While
these advances have given the Prometheans vast and potentially destructive new
powers, they may ultimately prove more useful to the watchful Copernicans.
Computer technology, modern optics, and advances in cellular biology have
dramatically increased scientists' ability to monitor the global atmosphere, map
genetic differences among closely related species, and detect the buildup of
dangerous hormone-mimicking chemicals in human tissues, to name a few. As a
result of their new powers of observation, many scientists are becoming
increasingly uncomfortable with what their instruments are telling them, and
increasingly worried about what the Prometheans have wrought.
There are real consequences to stealing the wealth of the gods, the extent of which
we are only beginning to learn.