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//Individual and Collective Freedom in Life Sciences and Mathematics// – Stanisław Bajtlik

Individual and Collective Freedom in Life Sciences and Mathematics – Stanisław Bajtlik

Stanisław Bajtlik (b. 1955) – astrophysicist, works at the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. Author of several dozen scientific papers on cosmology. Member of the Academic Board of the Warsaw Science Festival. Winner of the Award of the Minister of Science and Higher Education, Award of the Polish Press Agency President in 2007 for popularising science, as well as the 2008 Krzysztof Ernst Award and Medal granted by the Polish Physics Society.

Individual and Collective Freedom in Life Sciences and Mathematics

In his speech delivered at the Polish Culture Congress in December 1981, Grzegorz Białkowski (a physicist, poet, rector of the University of Warsaw 1985–1989) said that ‘Science is treated as advanced plumbing. When I say I am a physicist, people immediately ask me to fix their broken TV set, accuse me of poisoning Lake Erie or blame me for Hiroshima’.

In 2000, Michał Heller, a mathematician and cosmologist, said during the Polish Culture Congress that ‘In our times and in our everyday language we often distinguish between “science” and “culture”. It is a very bad habit. Science is not just a part of culture; it belongs to its very core. Without it, we would still be stuck in the barbarian era, and the world would be a magical symbol to us at best. Culture, together with science, its crucial element, is not a luxury product that people could do without in times of austerity. For humankind, culture is a matter of identity and survival. The cause “in the name of culture” is a cause “in the name of the people”’.

There are some important differences between science and art, but creativity, originality and innovation are common to both of these endeavours. The problem of freedom is also a shared one. In science, ‘academic freedom’ is the basic notion referring to this issue. It is a rule that allows researchers and teachers to conduct studies, publish results and pass on knowledge without ‘non-necessary’ restrictions imposed by law, institutions or public pressure. A simple rule, but the interpretation of what ‘necessary restrictions’ really mean is still a hot debate, leading to court battles and endless discussions. In reality, scientists are subject to various kinds of pressure and restrictions imposed by politicians, financing institutions, public opinion, religious centres, society as such, and their own circle and prejudice (including, for instance, pathological ambition).

In this text, I will skip over the restrictions resulting from past political and ideological situations. Everyone knows the fate of Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Galileo; we all remember that autopsies used to be forbidden, we know what Hitler did to German science, we did not forget Lysenko and Lepeshinskaya in the USSR. It seems, however, that even in modern, liberal democracies, the problem of freedom in science is still very much alive.

In many countries, such as Germany, the Republic of South Africa or Russia, ‘academic freedoms’ are constitutionally guaranteed. In France, professors are members of the civil service and thus are subject to relevant legislature, with freedoms guaranteed by the laws established by the Constitutional Council of France. The USA respects the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a declaration published by the American Association of University Professors. Disputes are adjudicated on the basis of the first amendment, which guarantees, among other rights, the freedom of speech. The Polish Constitution, for all its vocal profuseness, is very laconic in this matter. Only Article 54, paragraph 1 states that: ‘The freedom to express [one’s own] opinions, to acquire and to disseminate information shall be ensured to everyone’. It means that, say, teaching Aristotle is not protected (because these are not the professor’s ‘own’ opinions, unless we classify them as ‘disseminating information’, but what should we do then with asking questions? They are neither views nor information). Nevertheless, there are still many court cases in the USA regarding the right to teach creationism or the ‘theory of intelligent design’ to rival the evolution theory.

At the first glance, the problem of freedom in basic sciences may be divided into the issue of freedom of conducting research (topic, place, method selection) and that of publishing results or passing on knowledge to students. The problem of freedom to publish research results is as old as the hills. Death penalty for revealing the discovery of irrational numbers (such as π or √2)? Of course! In On the Pythagorean Way of Life (chapter XXXIV), Iamblichus (c. 250–326), a neoplatonist philosopher, wrote that ‘[The Pythagoreans] did not want to write or speak in such a way as to make the meaning of their thoughts clear to everyone; they say that Pythagoras was the first to teach that to his companions so that, freed from the profuseness of language, they could protect what they had learnt through the art of thought. It is said that the person who had been first to reveal the nature of symmetry and asymmetry to those unworthy of participating in sciences was hated so much that he was not only excluded from common existence and shared table but people also erected a [symbolic] tomb to him as a man who departed from human life and became different than before. Other said that daimon was angry at those who disclosed the teachings of Pythagoras. The one who ... passed on the teaching about the uncountable and immeasurable died at the sea in punishment for sacrilege’.[1]

Today, the purity of research results is protected by the system of peer review, wherein the publication is first evaluated by the members of the same academic circle. The system introduced towards the end of the 17th century by the Royal Society works perfectly well, although it is not free of flaws. Malice among reviewers, publication blocking, lack of possibility to issue a trustworthy opinion (how is the reviewer to verify whether the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN abided by the rules of reliability in their experiment? There is only one such device in the entire world. How do you check whether the universe scanned through a unique instrument is being reliably examined?) – all of these issues lead to problems within a ‘publish or die’ system. Some of the nasties say that every review in our times consists of (at least in its first draft) of three elements: ‘this result is incorrect, and even if it is correct, it is inconsequential, and besides I have arrived at it first’. All to delay the publication, to favour your friends and even yourself. The emergence of web-based ‘bulletin boards’ in the early 1990s, where people could post scientific articles waiting for publication, many of which never actually made through the sieve, seemed to offer a breakthrough. Unfortunately, the large number of unreliable papers led to the introduction of selection mechanisms (articles may be posted only by certified, previously verified authors).

Freedom in science is inseparable from honesty. At the beginning of their career, when receiving their PhD diploma, all academics swear an oath: ‘you will conduct and develop scientific research in your fields eagerly and with passion, not for the desire of vain gain or paltry fame, but to disseminate the truth and make it shine brighter, because the fate of the humankind depends on its light’. If we were to treat these word seriously, scientific papers would have to be anonymous (after all, it is about discovering the truth, not about the fame of the discoverer), and scientist should not be remunerated for their inventions, handbooks etc. Does anyone take such propositions seriously?

Freedom in scientific research is especially restricted in areas where it touches directly upon living people and morality. Controversies surrounding stem cell research, in vitro, correlations between intelligence levels and other factors characterising certain groups, gene therapy – these are but a few examples. Testing new medications and treatment methods on humans is subject to tight regulations and restrictions. Psychological experiments often give rise to controversy and indignation. Some anthropological studies are now taboo (no wonder after the ‘Lombroso album’ story). Some of these issues are legally regulated (cf. Constitution of Poland, Article 39: ‘No one shall be subjected to scientific experimentation, including medical experimentation, without his voluntary consent’).

The case of the platonist that was (possibly) put to death for disclosing the discovery of irrational numbers is indeed moving. However, even today many (most?) researchers are expected (contrary to their oath) to... remain silent. Most scientific research is financed by corporations and the military. Their results are confidential either in order to gain advantage over an enemy or to secure financial gains. Such an idealist approach as the one adopted by CERN founders, who wrote in their establishing convention (1952) that ‘the Organisation shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available’, in our times has become an exception.

There is also the issue of ownership of scientific discoveries. Recently, we have been witnesses to court rulings on the patenting of the human genome! We have all hear about problems with generic medications and ‘intellectual property’ as such. We should be thankful that the wheel was not patented. For a long time now, financing institutions have claimed the ownership rights not only to research results but also to... researchers. Let us take a look at the famous story of Abraham Flexner, director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who in the 1930s intercepted a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Albert Einstein, inviting the latter to a week of debates held at the White House. Flexner responded that Mr. Einstein was very busy and could not attend – he treated the scientist as his own property. Needless to say, Einstein was clueless.

You must do what your master tells you too. The way in which science is financed is the biggest curb on the freedom of scientists. The sponsors (government agencies, the military, corporations) dictate the topics to be researched, sometimes going as far as to impose... results. Most systems require research grant application to include a description of expected results. In other words, scientists have to predict what they will discover four, five years in advance, and are then evaluated based on their predictions. Everywhere, recently also in Poland, there is a pressure on conducting only such research that can ‘bring practical benefits’. In the same vein, the culture ministry could say that instead of sponsoring Zachęta, it would finance house painters, that the Warsaw Autumn would be abandoned in favour of ‘miusac’ composers (the paramusical creations that keep harassing us at airports and in the lift), while ambitious filmmakers will have to hand over their funding to soap opera directors. You could also ask why a simple person should care about the theory of Copernicus. Applied research is indeed necessary, but it will not yield any results if the system is not based on free, basic research (with unpredictable results).

The scientists’ dependence on their patrons is perfectly illustrated by a quotation from a letter written by Kepler, who discovered the laws governing the movement of planets, dated April 1630: ‘I have just come back from Jičino, where my patron [Albrecht von Vallenstein, commander of the imperial army in the Thirty Years’ War] kept me four three weeks [for astrological consultations]. It caused us both to lose a lot of time’.[2] Freeman Dyson, a physicist, one of the authors of quantum electrodynamics, a futurologist and feature writer, points out that scholars commit ‘clerk betrayal’, offering their knowledge and talents to satisfy the frivolous desires of the rich world (computer games, IMAX, weight loss pills, sophisticated transportation, hundreds of gadgets, etc.), and ignoring the basic needs of the majority of humankind (malaria medications, access to drinking water, fighting hunger, universally accessible education, etc.). Since mid 1990s, most funding for research on new microprocessors, video cards and high-speed memories comes from the entertainment industry (mostly computer games).

The system of evaluating and financial reporting inevitably leads to a conflict with academic freedoms. In the early 1990s, we witnessed a famous clash between professor Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and his employer. Hut, a renowned and productive scholar, engaged in ‘research’ that was far outside standard science. He was a co-founder of various institutes of ‘alternative cognition’. He repeatedly stated that he wanted to check ‘what else [aside from conventional learning] was true’. The IAS decided that his endeavours undermined its reputation and tried to fire Hut, compromising the sacred principle of academic tenure (which makes professors undismissable). The heated court battle ended with a settlement. Who was right? The outstanding Polish astrophysicist, Bohdan Paczyński, now deceased, commented on this and similar cases by saying that ‘if a scientist conducts research and gets results in conventional science, he or she should have the right to engage in unconventional experiments’.

The fierce competition (for fame and money) restricts freedom. I remember seeing a famous scholar at Princeton chasing a FedExpress truck, an envelope with his new article in hand. He was running as fast as he could in order to send his paper to the editorial team on the very same day, in this way claiming the palm of original research for himself. A question, however, arises: if someone could discover what he discovered on the following day, what value does this discovery hold? Many times have I hear the young science ‘wolves’, eager to knock on the door of an academic career, voicing their top-student worries: ‘Is this view accepted by the [academic] community?’ Such an attitude gives rise to a bandwagon effect, to collective behaviours and conformism that limit the freedom of research. The history knows of cases in which going against the current led to ostracism and then to suicides (for instance Ludwig Boltzmann, the precursor of the theory of atomic construction of matter) or madness (e.g. mathematician Gregor Cantor, the pioneer of infinity studies).

The issue of determining who was the original inventor, of becoming famous and therefore having a successful career and obtaining further funding, fuels an uncontrollable, sometimes almost pathological ambition among scholars, in this way restricting their freedom. Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576), an Italian mathematician who invented, among others, the universal joint, lost much more than ‘a lot of time’, like Kepler had. He predicted the day of his own death through stargazing, and when it failed to happen, he hanged himself in the afternoon of 21st September 1576 in the window of his house in Rome, so that everyone could see that he was right after all.


[1] Porphyry, Iamblichus, Anonymous, Żywoty Pitagorasa, Epsilon, Wrocław 1993, p. 58, translated from Polish by Anna Wolna.

[2] Quoted after: J. Dobrzycki, Kepler w Żaganiu, ‘Rocznik Lubuski’ 1975, vol. 9, p. 289, translated from Polish by Anna Wolna.