Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Science as a Voice of Sanity

Science Magazine is one of the most reliably cosmopolitan publications coming out today. A couple of weeks ago, they printed a letter that seems especially poignant in light of the current madness in the Middle East. Its author responds to an article about collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists. (Access most likely isn't free.) He writes:
In these days of debates on borders that impede the free movement of people--the U.S.-Mexican border, the European Union-African maritime borders, and the Israeli-Palestinian separation wall--Bohannon reminds us that science is an international activity that knows and should know no border.

Scientists understand the importance of the free flow of ideas, knowledge, and professionals. When scientific collaboration is seen as enemy collaborationism, science is losing against confrontational politics. While the battle against terrorism is of great importance, walls and barriers are against the essence of science.

While scientists are not immune to various chauvinisms, many have spoken out for larger loyalties. A couple of years ago, I studied cosmopolitan thought in Cold War America. One of my areas of focus was the attitudes of scientists, as expressed in the front matter of Science. Here are a few representative quotations.

"[S]cience is universal in that its truths are part of the universe accessible to all investigators; ... we gain as much by original discoveries made elsewhere as by those which we make." --Edward U. Condon, physicist, 1948

"We should deplore every display, whether by statesman or journalist, of dunghill courage that lessens the hope of mutual understanding, good-will, and ultimate collaboration among human beings." --Paul B. Sears, conservation scientist, 1958

"[I]nternational groups of scientists seem able to achieve cooperation of great importance when they are free of political entanglements and can act freely with the tropism toward cooperation which is traditional among scientists." --James R. Killian, Jr., former MIT president, 1961

"From a spaceship it is hard to see the logic of political boundaries. A new concept of sovereignty of nations might turn out to be the most important product of joint space stations." --Walter Orr Roberts, atmospheric scientist, 1970

Why is this view so widespread among scientists? Maybe because science studies an external world that exists independently of humans and their divisions. Maybe there is a trace in science of enlightenment universalist ideals. Maybe there are other reasons. Whatever the roots of the connection between science and world citizenship, I hope it leads to real change in the world.

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