By Michael Corballis 18/12/2017

The following is a slightly amended extract from an address I gave to the Science Graduation ceremony at the University of Otago, on 16 December, 2017:

I think science is in some trouble these days. Many still see it as inaccessible and remote, and at the same time immoral and dangerous. Even our own Ernest Rutherford is wrongly blamed for nuclear war, as is Darwin for the rise of fascism in Europe, and Einstein for being incomprehensible and for the inability of men to look after their hair.

To be sure, there have been strenuous and sometimes admirable attempts to present the human face of science, and Einstein’s hair can even help in this regard, but the attempt to popularise science is often accompanied by excessive hype and false promise. A claimed breakthrough on mice never quite seems to provide an actual cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

Part of the negativity comes from within the academy itself, sometimes in the guise of postmodernism, deconstructivism, or scientism, not to mention alternative facts. Science is portrayed as a product of the male mind, obsessed with numbers and machines and empty logic, but looking at today’s graduates in science, I see no evidence of male dominance—almost the reverse, I think. Science, it is sometimes claimed, will never unravel the complexities of the human mind—but just give us time, we’re trying.

This is about you

As a small measure of progress, my cellphone now invites me to ask it questions in spoken English, and generally provides well-informed answers. I recently took the liberty of asking it whether it had free will. “This is about you,” it replied, “not me.”

But I think there may be a more insidious problem for modern science. In a culture that values wealth over truth, and the short-term over the long-term, we confuse science and technology. Of course the two are linked. Science depends on advances in technology, and technology on the advance of science. In many ways technology is the glamour end of things—the smart phones, robots, electric cars, brain imaging, gene therapy, quantum computing, wearable software. It is where most of the funding is. Of course I do not disparage these things, and I am sure many science graduates will work in these areas and find them rewarding, both intellectually and financially, but we do need to remember that technology itself is not science.

In the long run it is basic science that drives not only the economy and the advance of technology, but also a sense of enlightenment and intellectual well-being. The nine Nobel Prize winners in science this year included seven Americans. The secretary general of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, made the following comment: “The United States has after the second World War allowed scientists to perform fundamental research, not forcing them to do immediate applications, not controlling them in a political way.”

Intellectual curiosity

Whatever else we may think of their politics, the United States has not so far wavered from support of basic science, driven by intellectual curiosity rather than immediate economic benefit—although there may now be some question as to whether this will continue. And of course the enormous success of the technology industries in the US has itself been driven by the dedication to basic science.

New Zealand has had a strong record of producing scientists driven more by intellectual curiosity than by commercial application, although of course profound application was often to follow. Shining examples include physicist-cum-chemist Ernest Rutherford, the chemist Allan MacDiarmid, the evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson, and the mathematician Vaughan Jones, who was mainly obsessed with understanding the algebra of knots—that’s what you tie your shoe laces with. The first two won Nobel Prizes, Wilson probably would have had he not died at the age of 56, and Jones won the coveted Fields Medal, said to be the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize. All four did ground-breaking work, but sadly they did it overseas, three of them in the United States.

Perhaps we will never compete with the US, but even our primary support for basic research, the Marsden Fund, is designed for short-term projects and what we are pleased to call innovation—a word mostly redolent of exaggerated but empty promise. Real science takes time and patience, but spiced with curiosity and imagination.