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Epistemology of Science

A CEO's Case for the Epistemology of Science

By Thomas M. Zinnen

Few CEO's devote the core of their public speeches to epistemology. Some may not know what epistemology is, and others may not care. Jerry Caulder both knows and cares.

To Caulder, many of the regulatory problems confronting the use of biotechnology, especially agricultural biotechnology, center around a single issue: How do we determine what the truth is?

Caulder, who retired recently as CEO of Mycogen, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, spoke at the CROPS '99 conference held in October at St. Louis.

"We have to agree on how we as a society determine on what truth is," said Caulder. An agreement is so essential because the need is so pressing: feeding the world. "There are over 5 billion people in the world now," he noted, "and in 40 years there will be 10 billion."

Do the math, and the results are daunting. "We will have to produce more calories in the next 40 years than humanity has produced in the last 10,000 years," Caulder calculated.

To meet that need the power of biotechnology to improve crops will be essential, Caulder said. "Biotechnology and agriculture will prevent more diseases than medicines will cure," he projected. He described how recombinant DNA technology can reduce inputs by providing a genetic basis for insect resistance, herbicide resistance, and disease resistance. Biotechnology applied to food can increase quantity and improve quality, such as nutritional quality and taste. Plants can produce raw materials for fuels, fibers and plastics: to make components as well as calories.

Caulder noted that even vaccines may be delivered through food, using bananas to carry immunity to cholera, for example.

But a problem persists. "If we will ever banish hunger, pestilence and disease," he said, "we have to be a tireless opponent of pseudoscience and a vigorous proponent of science."

At the heart of Caulder's concern for epistemology is the role of science in decision-making. "The best and brightest can be impeded by the worst and the dullest---polls, courts, media, regulatory agencies," he chided.

Ways of Knowing

Caulder thinks it is important to be aware of how society has changed historically in assessing truth. "We had an Authoritative System: the pope, the king, the prince decided what was right," said Caulder, noting that Galileo had been excommunicated for defying authority and relying on evidence.

"Then we moved into the Scientific Method: reason and experience and experiment tested our ideas," Caulder continued. "Testability is the one difference between science and faith. That's what scientists do--they test, and retest. The problem is you're wrong a lot. But the ultimate defense that you're moving toward the truth. Can anybody else make that claim?"

"But in the last few years we've moved into the Egalitarian Method: let's just vote on what the truth is."

The problem with this approach, warned Caulder, is that "we vote on what the truth is rather than trying to figure out what it is."

Caulder identified a final method called the Humanitarian Approach described by the idea that "You're a nice fellow, so we'll give credence to your ideas."

Science as the Decisive Scrutinizer

But if an idea doesn't stand the scrutiny of science, it should have no standing, Caulder contended. Part of that scrutiny, in Caulder's view, is 'Occam's Razor:' use the simplest explanation that fits the data. "We have to get back to figuring out the truth through the scientific method," said Caulder. "Science by testing should be the standard; instead, regulatory second-guessing based on politics robs you of money to put into better things."

One of the better things might be education in schools. US schools need to "get back to educating kids rather than training them," said Caulder. "Ask students to defend ideas. Teach them to solve problems."

The challenge is not limited to secondary schools. In an age awash in information, Caulder cautioned, "We have to take a look at how we're going to disseminate information, especially at the university. The problem now is to discern the validity of information." He proposed that "the universities need to get kids involved in the process of thinking and assessing and solving problems."

According to Caulder, land-grant universities should be leaders in "sifting the scientific wheat from the non-scientific chaff about the safety of biotech." Hoarding and distorting data are two significant problems, and to Caulder, "land grant schools should be a depository and scrutinizer of data from all sources."

Because in the final analysis, Caulder pointed out, "It isn't what we don't know that hurts us. It's what we think we know that isn't true that hurts us."

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