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The Cancer Journal - Volume 5, Number 2 (March-April 1992)


Conservatism in science

"When do anomalies begin?" This is the title of an article by Lightman and Gingerich in a recent issue of Science (1), in which they comment on the conservatism of science. A long discussion would be necessary to decide whether one should say, as they do, the conservatism of science or, as we prefer, the conservatism in science. Is conservatism inherent in science or is it merely a coincidental feature which happens to be dominant at the moment? In the field of medicine, many doctors and scientists involved in clinical practice and research find it difficult to accept that conservatism can co-exist with technological progress, as if the use of modern tools could bring about a change in our attitude to knowledge more favourable to a much needed re-alighment in our way of thinking. Lightman and Gingerich write that "Science is a conservative activity, and scientists are reluctant to change their explanatory frameworks". Like any other form of conservatism, the established order of ideas appears to be effective, judging by the words and images which it projects. It only becomes ineffective, counter-productive, when looked at from outside. Biomedical science examines itself and is satisfied with what it sees: its regular and copious production, its thousands of scientists and technicians, its administrative structures and its press, of which this journal is a part. The picture becomes less attractive when held up to the light of social criteria. In the case of biomedical science the key criterion is health. Even then, our concepts of health and of progress therein are not precisely defined. If this is taken on a world scale it would be foolish, at least, to boast of progress. If we dared, or knew how, we could draw up a balance-sheet between progress, for the most part limited to industrialized countries, seen as a reduction of infant mortality and a very noticeable increase in the expected life-span at birth, and the failures: inadequate or poor nutrition, the persistance or expansion of parasitic and infectious diseases, including AIDS, and the spread to the Third World of health risks hitherto restricted to industrialized countries. These are complicated phenomena in which science is neither completely responsible nor entirely innocent; to which, however, it pays little attention. Expensive science is dependent on its sources of finance, which limits its choice of subjects for study. There is nothing original in these remarks, they are so obvious that it seems almost indecent to print them. When one speaks of conservatism, one tacitly admits that other ways of thinking are possible, and necessary. Changing the context of science so as to make it less conservative would approach the Utopian idea linking science to progress and biomedical science to the improvement of health.

Jean-Claude Salomon
e-mail: salomon@tribunes.com

1. Lightman A, Gingerich O. When do anomalies begin? Science 255, 690-695, 1991.