The German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943) is a hero of mine. His most famous quote, Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen
(We must know, we will know), seems at once to capture both Hilbert’s purity and optimism. In the first three words, he upholds the pursuit of knowledge as the most important goal of science; in the second three, he expresses his belief that complete knowledge is possible: not that we might or could know but that we will.
Even though some of my colleagues disagree with me, I maintain an extremely purist stance on science. I believe that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the only legitimate goal in science (by which I mean basic science, as opposed to applied science like medicine and engineering), and the truth is its only arbiter. Nothing else should matter in science besides the objective, dispassionate, and single-minded pursuit of the truth, and scientists must pursue it no matter what the consequences.
From my purist position, everything scientists say, qua scientists, can only be true or false or somewhere in between. No other criteria besides the truth should matter or be applied in evaluating scientific theories or conclusions. They cannot be “racist” or “sexist” or “reactionary” or “offensive” or any other adjective. Even if they are labeled as such, it doesn’t matter. Calling scientific theories “offensive” is like calling them “obese”; it just doesn’t make sense. Many of my own scientific theories and conclusions are deeply offensive to me, but I suspect they are at least partially true.
Once scientists begin to worry about anything other than the truth and ask themselves “Might this conclusion or finding be potentially offensive to someone?”, then self-censorship sets in, and they become tempted to shade the truth. What if a scientific conclusion is both offensive and true? What is a scientist to do then? I believe that many scientific truths are highly offensive to most of us, but I also believe that scientists must pursue them at any cost.
It is not my job as a scientist to “use” scientific knowledge in any way to improve the human condition; that’s the job of politicians, policy makers, physicians, and other social engineers. Their goal of helping people and improving their lives is a noble and important (albeit nonscientific) one. Any successful intervention, however, must be based on the true understanding of nature. If these social engineers don’t know the true causes of what they are trying to create or eliminate, how can they possibly hope to succeed? By opposing and entirely disregarding certain scientific theories and conclusions a priori on ideological and political grounds, because they believe they could not and should not be true, they risk the chance they might not achieve their goal of helping people.
Academic freedom must be upheld, not because it is some inalienable, God-given right of all scientists, but because it is the best way to attain the truth. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That’s why I strongly support the rights of creationists, Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists, and anybody else to publish their ideas. The inherent flaws in their logic and evidence can only be exposed if their ideas are widely known and discussed. If we keep them hidden, we could never eliminate the possibility that they just might be true.
The only responsibility that scientists have is to the truth, nothing else. Scientists are not responsible for the potential or actual consequences of the knowledge they create. Holding scientists responsible for uses and misuses of their research by others is a sure-fire way to detract them from the single-minded pursuit of the truth, because that would make them pause and entertain other criteria besides the truth. If the truth offends people, it is our job as scientists to offend them. Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen. I am a scientific fundamentalist.
[This is a slightly revised version of an essay originally published in the December 15, 2006, issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement.]