Should scientists go back to being ‘natural philosophers’? Education UK’s Ellie Buchdahl spoke to Professor Lord Robert Winston, who boasts a long list of achievements in both science and the arts, to find out.
Should scientists be more than ‘just scientists’?
The scientists of the 1600s and 1700s were ‘natural philosophers’, and they were philosophers – they read Latin and Greek poets and based their knowledge on a range of influences from history and literature, as well as their observations and experiments. Then, around the 1800s we stopped calling what they did 'natural philosophy', and started calling it science, from the Latin 'scientia', meaning knowledge.
I think one of the problems we have in our society is that we insist on young people learning more and more about less and less. In my field of work, that means driving through a narrow funnel of science education, forgetting that the arts and humanities are crucial to our existence, our reason and science. Maybe a little less knowledge and a little more thought might be helpful.
How can arts and humanities help scientists?
Literacy is very important. From reading literature from other periods in history, you can learn a great deal about serendipity and human experience in a way that you can’t from a coldly ‘scientific’ perspective that is about processes. That helps you enormously when it comes to collaborating and communicating, and it also helps you understand the implications of what you’re doing and the risks of what you’re doing.
How is this particularly important in your own work?
There are things in our society that perpetuate an attitude towards people who are different from ourselves, one side of which is racism, and it is incredibly important for me to bear these in mind. A lot of my professional life has been dealing with genetics and the relationship with reproduction. You can find renaissance religious paintings, for example, that depict people with Down’s Syndrome, hernias, very specific facial deformities associated with certain medical conditions, and that use these conditions in a negative way to represent something evil or horrific. Genetic disease has been an issue right through human civilisation, and genetic modification has been an issue too, up to eugenics, which was appropriated in atrocious ways not least by Nazi scientists aiming to create their ‘ideal’ human.
Nowadays, we can modify animals for strength and speed, and if you can modify a pig, then why not – if you’ll forgive the pun – why not go ‘the whole hog’ and modify humans too? And why not modify cognitive ability? Why not modify aggression or memory, which of course may well be possible? You have to realise the power that scientists have and the importance of putting your work into a moral perspective.
I think it’s also very important to communicate honestly to the public and realise the effect that scientists can have and the trust that people put on the ‘certainty’ of science. In my work, I often meet people who believe in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a sure-fire treatment when, in fact, the success rate is just over 30 per cent.
So does a ‘good’ scientist also need to be a top humanities student?
It’s important to have an understanding – but in reality, it’s difficult to be good at everything! In fact, what works best is if you can get a balance of different people rather than one person who fits everything. The best laboratories I’ve worked in will have some people who are really obsessed with getting to the finer details of cell structure or tissues or equations, but also those people who can stand back and say 'what the hell, it’s not working, let’s go to the pub or go and see a play together'.
What are the essential attributes of scientists, and who do you think embodies them?
I’d pick two philosophers rather than scientists. Shakespeare has to be there because he represents uncertainty. Shakespeare wasn't just a brilliant poet; he also understood the human mind, and that is clear through all his greatest plays – Hamlet, King Lear and even the history plays like Richard II. Irony, paradox and the uncertainty of the human mind come across in everything he writes.
My quarrel with people like Richard Dawkins – not my very serious quarrel, because I like him personally – but my quarrel with his belief is that he thinks science is about certainty. But you have to realise that not everything is within your control, especially not the human mind. I think science is about uncertainty, and only once you’re uncertain about science can you do good science.
The other person, and to my mind, one of the greatest ever scientists, was Michel de Montaigne. To me, he is an example of a perfectly educated person – because he exhibits such modesty. He spends his entire time quoting historical and literary sources, and his humanity is unbelievable, and so is his lack of wishing to be seen as prominent, well-educated or important.
We do change people’s lives in the sciences and particularly in medicine. But what I find even more powerful, in a way, is when people have the courage to tell their stories about how science has affected them. When I meet people who have benefited from any area of my work, it makes me feel very, very humble.
As scientists, we have to realise the power we have – and the limitations of that power.
Professor Lord Robert Winston is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking research into in vitro fertilisation. He has published specialist and popular science books for adults and children, and appears on TV. See his website or Wikipedia page for more, and follow him on Twitter.
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Lord Winston appeared at the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF), a programme that brings around 450 students from more than 60 countries to the UK for a fortnight of science-related events. LIYSF ran on 22 July - 5 August 2015. The British Council partners with LIYSF to promote UK education and science research opportunities.