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,"
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."