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The Cancer Journal - Volume 8, Number 4 (July-August 1995)


Will the Golem overcome cancer?

Today I would like to talk about The Golem, not the one from Hebrew mythology, but the book of that title written by H. Collins and T. Pinch (1). In the preface to the second edition (1994) they state that "...most science is uncontroversial...citizens as citizens need understand only controversial science...for citizens who want to take part in the democratic processes of a technological society, all the science they need to know is controversial.
The body of this book is a historical description of some scientific controversies. The older ones have become legends, with the heroes emerging victorious from a good, clean fight, shown completely out of context, while the losers are condemned to oblivion, as those who could neither see nor understand the truth. Recent controversies are seen to take place on the fringes of science, amid the left-overs and the mediocre; they represent part of the mistakes without which no great advances can be made.
Collins and Pinch strive to recreate the historical context of each controversy with a wealth of factual details. However, they have not be able to convince all their critics; for example, Nature (2), although it admits "...the writing is deft, the stories good and there is not a boring page", calls it "this perverse but entertaining book". Here is a telling word which converts the judgement to a moral one - this is a book that should not fall into everybody's hands, especially those of ordinary citizens or young scientists.
My readers will be beginning to see where I am leading. Without ambiguity I invite you who may chance to encounter one of these controversies to remain shrewd and to beware of self-appointed judges and legend-makers, however renowned or highly placed they are. The history of science is also, perhaps mainly, a circumspect affair which by examining critically the different stages of scientific progress bring into question myths and heros. This is the price of freedom of judgement and we must refuse to let this be called perversity.
Science and technology are the fruits of human endeavour and as such cannot be separated from the society which produces them. It follows that error is at the very heart of scientific production, however large and permanent it is. If science could give rise to certitudes, we could judge it as good or bad. However, science and technology provide only relative truths and imperfect tools, and are therefore immune to summary judgements. Science and technology are not perverse, but they are not intrinsically good either. What is perverse are scientists who promise too much and then disappoint, or those who refuse to demystify science with clear analysis. Mistrusting the history of science, medicine and technology is a much more obvious symptom of obscurantism than controversies.
The Golem by Collins and Pinch is a wholesome book, which should be read. It is not only entertaining, it is an aid to free thinking. There are many other books, varied and contradictory, which we will recommend to you. This sort of critical reading is very stimulating mental exercice for scientists and clinicians.
Jean-Claude Salomon
e-mail: salomon@tribunes.com

1. The Golem: wlat everyone should know about science. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
2. Gratzer W. Grappling with the Golem. Nature 364, 22-23, 1993.