La mentira, tal como dice nuestro Diccionario, es una “expresión o manifestación contraria a lo que se sabe, se cree o se piensa”. No se trata de un acto que pase inadvertido a quien lo realiza. Se trata de un mecanismo psicológico que ha evolucionado para otorgar ventaja de supervivencia en entornos sociales en los que la competencia por los recursos es fuerte. El ser humano, social por excelencia, ha desarrollado esta perversa habilidad de forma sublime. Su gran capacidad cognitiva y su lenguaje no le han hecho necesariamente más sincero, sino mejor en el arte del engaño. Es por ello que en la ciencia, su empresa intelectual más elevada, las mentiras no desaparecen, sino que se hacen más sutiles.
El método científico pretende desterrar ambigüedades y supersticiones y, por supuesto, el engaño. Pero los actores que desarrollan el papel de científicos son humanos y, como tales, débiles e imperfectos, y dispuestos a mentir si la ocasión lo requiere imperiosamente. Por supuesto en esto hay tipos y grados. Existen auténticos profesionales de la mentira, no científicos que se hacen pasar por tales. Y dentro de los científicos los hay que han llegado a ser tan profesionales que se mueven en la ciencia como en un trabajo más, buscando ganarse la subvención o el sueldo y vendiendo para ello las “verdades” que mejor convengan a quien le paga. También los hay que sienten que algunos fines justifican los medios y mienten para mejor acercar a la sociedad a su realización. Y supongo que se mentirá por muchos otros motivos no expuestos aquí. La verdad es así, de esta y de otras variadas formas, traicionada en el mismo Templo del Saber.
Dan Agin, Profesor emérito de genética molecular y biología celular en la Universidad de Chicago, Doctor en psicología biológica y editor jefe de Science Week, ha escrito sobre la ciencia basura y sobre las mentiras de la ciencia, y ha tenido la amabilidad de respondernos unas preguntas. José Miguel Guardia las ha puesto en un correcto inglés y Marzo Varea ha traducido las respuestas a un correcto castellano. Confiamos en que el Profesor Agin nos haya contado “la verdad, toda la verdad y nada más que la verdad”.
1. Doesn’t everything dressed up in science exercise a similar influence than the sacred? Is there, in some sense, a scientific priesthood?
Science is influential because it’s the main source of our knowledge of the real world, and because applied science can produce new technology often of great benefit to us all. Scientists are influenctial because people view them as authorities, but in truth most scientists know a great deal about their specialty and not much about anything else. Yes, I suppose there’s a “priesthood” in science, but they take no vows, wear no robes, and for the most part avoid dictating morality.
2. How does climate change? To what extent are its variations predictable? How strong is the human action in it?
The variables responsible for climate depend for the most part on the position of the Earth with respect to the Sun, and on the convection of heat from the Sun by air and water on the surface of the Earth. The next most important set of variables involve the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, since any light from the Sun must penetrate that atmosphere to reach the Earth, and any heat radiated by Earth back into space must also penetrate that atmosphere in the reverse direction. Continuing and extensive human action can easily change the atmosphere to block radiated heat from the Earth, which quickly makes the Earth hotter and produces “global warming”. The glass of a greenhouse allows light from the Sun to penetrate to the interior but retards the flow of heat outward–keeping the inside of the greenhouse warm in winter. As far as predicting climate change, it’s a messy business in the short term due to convection chaos, but it’s not so messy in the long term. The prediction of long-term global warming given our current situation is on firm scientific ground.
3. What motivates scientists, besides pure knowledge?
Scientists are people like everyone else, and their motivations are no different. Some scientists are in science because they enjoy competition with intelligent people. Other scientists are in science to improve their social status and make money. And others, maybe a minority, are in science because they want pure knowledge and enjoy solving puzzles. Of course, like with many people, motives can be mixed in one person. Above all, scientists are just people.
4. In science itself, how much is speculation, hypothesis, interpretation, and how much is certainty?
There is no real certainty in science. Whatever conclusions one has are based (or should be based) on the facts as they exist today. If tomorrow some new facts arrive in the mail, one may need to change one’s conclusions. Of course, it’s not so easy, and many people will hold onto their conclusions until they die, no matter what new facts arrive. But sooner or later the old guard dies out and the new guard takes over. There isn’t much to be said about “speculation” or “hypothesis” or “interpretation”. The idea is to use your eyes and ears (and sometimes your nose), get the facts, build sensitive instruments if your own senses are not good enough, use your brain and much common sense and try to understand the real world as it is and not as you would like it to be. The idea is to be as hard-boiled and as objective as possible and know reality. Sometimes you can be more sure of your conclusions than at other times–it depends on what you’re looking at. Ideally, every scientist is an impartial judge in Nature’s courtroom–and a judge who will often make mistakes!
5. What are the opportunities and risks involved in the spectacular advances taking place in neuroscience, embryology and genetics? Is there a risk that mind manipulators, genetic-based discrimination, or the creation of post-human beings, may appear?
There’s always a risk of one kind or another in any new technology. The first family to light a fire inside a cave took a risk. The story of human progress is a story of risks. Without risks, we would still be in a Dark Age. There’s too much misery in the world, disease and hunger and ignorance, for us not to take risks to make life better for people.
6. Given the complexity of today’s society, and the amount of knowledge that has a distribution, it is very difficult for the average person to keep properly aware and informed of all matters affecting them, either directly or indirectly, and that is meaningful to their lives. What advice would you give to those who do not want to be fooled, but who can’t have all data needed to check the contradictory messages they receive?
It’s not easy. But it’s also ridiculous that the average person knows more about how their automobile works than about how their own body works, or more about the players on the local football team than about the local medical people who make judgments about life and health in the community. You need to be like a scientist, hard-boiled and objective, as hard boiled and objective about which ideas to hold onto and about what to believe as you are about which automobile to buy or which knife to buy for your kitchen. Who is responsible for your knowledge if not yourself? And when will that responsibility start?
7. What are you now working on? What is your highest scientific challenge? What’s the mystery you would dream to unveil?
I have a new book coming out October, 2009 called More Than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to Our Children.
I’m now working on a book for the general reader about madness and the frontal lobes of the human brain, what we know and how we came to know it.
Since I’m a neuropsychologist, the puzzle of my life, my highest scientific challenge, is to understand how the human brain works. But next year I will be eighty years old, so it’s almost certain I will die still puzzled.