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Address delivered during FORUM III

by H.E. Prof. Luiz Carlos Concalves Bresser Pereira
Minister of Science and Technology

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According to conventional wisdom, Brazil, as a developing country, should be among the strongest sponsors of an economic development-oriented science. In addition, if it was needed to choose between a neo-positivist and a relativist view of science, we would tend to choose the latter, firstly because it dominated the century that is ending, secondly, because reason would tend to be faltering in underdeveloped countries.

In this short presentation, I will not follow either one or the other expected beliefs. Science experienced enormous achievements in the twentieth century. Yet, I am convinced that the two major threats that science faces today are instrumentalism and relativism, as it was, a century ago, neo-positivism. I will defend science against these dangers which are manifested in this World Conference on Science, while avoiding the opposite mistake - the arrogant neo-positivism that prevailed, in the last fin de siècle.

The Threat    Back to top

It is quite clear that science is under threat. It is enough, for instance, to observe what is happening in relation to the genetically modified crops in some countries of Europe. Scientists failed to predict that the ‘mad cow’ disease could be transmitted to humans. This is probably the reason behind the fact that when recently a new, although unrelated, question emerged - the health and environmental safety of genetically modified food and plants - public opinion in these countries opposed them, ignoring the broad scientific consensus that the duly approved genetically modified food is safe. As a British scientist told me, in this case it is not the genetically modified organisms that are in question, it is science.

In the past science was challenged with tradition and religion. But in those instances it was science against tradition, scientific method against revealed truth. The adversaries of science, although politically strong, had an enormous difficulty in fighting reason, since the belief in the human capacity of rational knowledge had become dominant.

In a second moment, the ethical consequences of scientific discoveries were en cause. When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and afterwards, in the middle of the century, after physicians came with discoveries that permitted the development of nuclear weapons, the critique was ethical: it was against the misuse of reason or of science.

Now it is reason itself and its noblest outcome - science - that are being challenged. Science may still have prestige, but just as an abstract entity and it is not supposed to be confused with scientists, which, according to a growing perception, would be mixed up with their theories and prone to error.

This is a common attitude among some environmentalists who believe that nature is too complex and delicate to be grasped by scientists. Thus, they tend to oppose human intervention in the environment, even if the scientific community affirms its safety. Even if this scientific community is formed by many scientists that are actively working in developing means to better understand and better protect the environment.

Scientists adopt their views on the predicted safety of a given genetically modified food without claiming full certainty, which, however, is required by the critics today, as was demanded by religious people in the past. In the case of genetically modified food this is manifested when, for instance, environmentalists oppose them - although there are no demonstrated perverse side effects involved - more strongly than the agro-toxic substances, consumption of which is being consequently reduced and the damaging consequences of which are well known.

My explanation for that is that there is a kind of ontological prejudice here: while agro-toxic products are spread out over the plants, genetically modified organisms undergo a substantial change - a change in the being of that organism. The fact that changes are small, well known, and under control of the scientists becomes irrelevant. The only relevant fact is the substantial change.

Relativism    Back to top

If an attitude like that becomes widespread we face a serious question for mankind. If we don't take account of the scientific criterion, will the ethical one be enough? Evidently, it will not. In order to orient our action we need the scientific or truth criterion and the ethical criterion, one complementing the other, not fighting each other. Science, which deals with facts and truth, is a-ethical, not unethical, just as ethics, the object of which is values, is a-scientific, not against science.

Then, if a relative loss in the legitimacy of science is taking place, the question is why. I propose two answers. One is that the deserved defeat of neo-positivism leads many to the opposite mistake: full relativism.

It is arrogant and authoritarian to believe that scientists are able to achieve the definitive truth. Since Popper, it has been clear that our theories are right if they can be falsified and have not been. Since Kuhn, we have known that the final scientific criterion is the consensus of the scientific community: theories are viewed as right as long as they are accepted by the more respected scientists in each science branch.

But it is nonsense to make a 180-degree turn, and say, like the relativists, that truth is impossible and science essentially crippled. Scientists only come to a consensus after repeated experiments and/or after severe and methodical reasoning. Some sciences are more precise or advanced than others. Human or historical sciences will never be as precise as physical or biological sciences. We may not have the full truth, but, thanks to science, we are far, far away, from absolute ignorance. To come to some consensus, reasoning and experiments are not enough. Scientists are supposed to debate among themselves and, when ethical questions are involved, to open the debate to society. But this debate must be limited to the value questions mixed up in it. Both the scientific and ethical debate are required, but while the later is open to all citizens, the former is a prerogative of the ones who dominate the respective scientific field.

Instrumentalism   Back to top

A second and less obvious, but probably more important reason why the legitimacy of science is under attack is related to the tendency to make it instrumental to something else: particularly to economic development. As in the former case, a more balanced approach is required. But, differently from the former case, the problem is not just a question between scientists and non-scientists. It is also a question among scientists, as the draft of the basic document for this conference, the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge, well illustrates.

The Introductory Note to the Science AgendaFramework for Action correctly asserts:

Many of these [new groups] are concerned with the environmental and other issues that the sciences are expected to address. Some reflect a lay disenchantment and disregard for science, and a fear of the unforeseen or unknown consequences of some of its applications. The confusion about who speaks for science amongst the many sectors, and whose science can be trusted, adds to this public mistrust.

But what is the remedy that is proposed for that problem? The Introductory Note deals with many, but I believe I will not be unfair if its main proposition is that:

The progress of science cannot be justified purely in terms of search for knowledge. In addition, it must be defended – and increasingly so, in view of budgetary restrictions – through its relevance and effectiveness in addressing the needs and expectations of our societies.

It is impossible to deny that science is supposed to be relevant for human needs, but when this becomes a strategy for legitimising budget appropriations, or when this leads to the organization of the draft Declaration into sections that have for titles phrases like ‘Science for Knowledge; Knowledge for Progress’, ‘Science in Society and Science for Society', ‘Science for Peace and Development’, we are confronted with a signal that we are in trouble, that the advance of knowledge itself, that the search for truth is turning or has already become instrumental.

But why am I so concerned with an instrumental science? In a globalized world where markets and competition have become dominant in the domestic and in the international realm, are we not constrained to be practical, relevant? Yes and no. Yes, because we are all committed to people’s needs; yes, because science and technology are far from having achieved the elimination of mass poverty and disease in the world; yes, because one of the four main political objectives mankind has today is economic growth (the other three are order, freedom and reasonable equality).

No, because knowledge, like justice, is an all-time objective of mankind; no, because science may be oriented but cannot be subordinated to other objectives; no, because we should not try to establish a hierarchy among these four objectives: all of them are final objectives. They are final but they are not absolute objectives. Since they are not always consistent, trade-offs, not hierarchy, is what we are supposed to do with them.

Scientific Cooperation    Back to top

If I am warning against an instrumental concept of science, this does not mean that I disregard its importance for economic growth. In science and in technology rests a major part of the hopes of the developing countries to reverse the tendency to increase the gap between them and the developed countries. If we are able to absorb and adapt technology to our needs, we may change this trend.

Thus, one thing that could be expected from the defecation of Brazil in this World Conference on Science would be that its delegation would assume the role of demanding from the developed countries greater cooperation. We are not going to do that. Developed countries are more concerned with keeping the educational and technological advantage they have than transfering their know-how. More important is that the scientists of the developing countries cooperate among themselves. Brazil is actively pursuing this, particularly in Latin America and in the Portuguese-speaking African countries. We are also supposed to cooperate with the scientists of the developed countries - and we often do that - but the condition for a fruitful cooperation is that it has to be done on equal terms.

Conclusion    Back to top

My fears about turning science instrumental may be too obvious. I hope they are. But since the world we live in today is a post-modern world, a world where science and knowledge has never reached such heights, while, in the same time, doubt or uncertainty about everything are so vast, I believe that some basic values should be preserved. Besides, when science is just made instrumental it immediately loses part of its legitimacy and easily becomes the target of open or concealed attacks.

My distrust of a broader cooperation between developed and developing countries may be pessimistic. I hope it is. But what is important for the developing countries is to count on themselves and on their capacity for developing science and technology in their own countries, out of their own endeavour and self-commitment.

For sure, we have to be modest, our scientific propositions need to be careful, we should never ignore our shortcomings or avoid internal and external critique and debate. But this should not lead us to make science relative or instrumental. In any of both cases we are failing to defend it - and we know well that science is a patrimony of mankind.

For sure, we must count on cooperation among countries. A Conference like this one would not make sense if we did not. But this belief must be tempered by reality. Science and technology are, no doubt, a patrimony of mankind, but a poorly divided patrimony. It will only have a more equitable division from the moment that we are able to take care of ourselves in a more effective way, following our own advice, learning from our own mistakes, and having always clear in our minds that science and technology only makes sense when we are, ourselves, able to dominate and make good use of it.


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