Tilghman explores clash of science, politics and religion in talk at Oxford University

Dec. 1, 2005 9:45 p.m.

Clashes between scientists and politicians, especially those inspired by religious motives, are slowing progress on several fronts and threatening the very integrity of the scientific enterprise, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman warned scholars gathered at the University of Oxford on Thursday, Dec. 1.

Tilghman, delivering the prestigious Romanes Lecture, said priorities being shifted by religious conservatism are jeopardizing funding and other resources for scientific study.

"As [19th-century biologist] Thomas Huxley rightfully said, it is naive to think that science can be completely divorced from other aspects of human activity," Tilghman said, "but the credibility of science can be compromised -- sometimes fatally -- when it is allowed to be inappropriately co-opted for political and religious purposes."

The full text of Tilghman's lecture, "Strange Bedfellows: Science, Politics and Religion," is available online.

Tilghman, a world-renowned molecular biologist, said that the potential for conflict between scientific, political and religious factions seems greater now than at any time in her career. She used recent examples from U.S. space exploration and evolutionary biology to make her point.

At a time when significant progress in space research is being made through research with satellite telescopes and unmanned craft, the Bush administration announced new goals of sending humans back to the moon by 2015 and eventually to Mars, Tilghman said. She blamed the conflicting priorities on a failure by the federal government to listen to advice from leading scientists, including a key report produced by the National Academy of Sciences. She likened the setting of the new priorities to the decision-making process that led to the foundering Space Station.

"A lesson I would draw from this case study is that top-down, politically driven science projects, especially those that will be enormously expensive, need to be clear about their goals at the outset and are unlikely to be successful in scientific terms unless they have the support of scientists who understand the challenges and likely benefits of the undertaking," Tilghman said.

Turning to biology, she focused on the current discussion surrounding "intelligent design" as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution.

"Under the banner of 'intelligent design,' Christian fundamentalists in the United States have launched a well-publicized assault on the theory of evolution, suggesting that the complexity and diversity of nature is not the product of random mutation and natural selection but rather of supernatural intent," Tilghman said.

As a scientist, Tilghman said that many of her findings have been explained by evolutionary biology. "The power of the theory of natural selection to illuminate natural phenomena, as well as its remarkable resilience to experimental challenge over almost 150 years, has led to its overwhelming acceptance by the scientific community," she said.

Unlike Darwin's theory, intelligent design poses no testable hypotheses, she said, and therefore "has no place in the science curriculum of America's public schools."

Tilghman speculated that the reason evolutionary biology and cosmology may be subject to political and religious tension is the unique conflict between scientific study in these fields and humanity's "universal need for a narrative to explain our origin and place in the universe."

"To the degree that evolutionary biology and cosmology appear to undermine the truth of … old and revered narratives, their findings will be deeply troubling and threatening to some," she added.

Both examples, Tilghman said, demonstrate the dangers that crop up when science and politics fall out of synch and become "strange bedfellows."

"Sending Americans to Mars may be politically astute, and promoting intelligent design in American classrooms may be a source of comfort to those who are threatened by the implications of natural selection," Tilghman said, "but neither, in my judgment, represents sound science, and to suggest that they do threatens the integrity of the entire scientific enterprise. The ultimate risk is that we lose the trust and respect of the public, on whom we depend for the support of science."

She urged scientists to be proactive in safeguarding their role in society. She implored her colleagues to explain concepts clearly and to provide practical illustrations as well as to hear what others from different backgrounds are saying.

"We must listen as well as speak to those who look at the world through a fundamentally different prism and be prepared to acknowledge the legitimacy of their beliefs while drawing a clear distinction between the tenets of science on the one hand and political aspirations and religious beliefs on the other," she said.

Oxford's Vice-Chancellor John Hood said it was a privilege to have Tilghman deliver the 2005 Romanes Lecture. Since its creation in 1891, the annual event has called upon leading scholars and public officials to speak on issues of science, art and literature.

"The Romanes Lecture may fairly be described as one of the most famous of all English lectures," Hood said. "The first lecturer, in 1892, was Prime Minister William Gladstone, and it has since been delivered by many other distinguished figures, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill."

Among others who have given the lecture are Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson in 1997, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former Princeton President William G. Bowen in 2000, and noted evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley in 1893.

"The University of Oxford is honored to add Shirley M. Tilghman, most distinguished molecular biologist and president of Princeton, to this list of eminent speakers," Hood said.