Published on Tuesday, December 11, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
Listen to the Realism of a Hundred Nobel Laureates
by John C. Polanyi
STOCKHOLM - Some Nobel prize winners are intelligent, but some are no more so than other people. Why, therefore, pay attention to the views of more than 100 of them who support the Nobel statement issued to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel prize this month?
The answer is that one's perception of truth comes not from intelligence but from a sense of values. Scholarship embodies those values.
Although this is obscure to many, it was evident to Alfred Nobel, the Swedish tycoon and explosives manufacturer. In his will he stipulated that his prizes recognize idealisk rigtning - idealistic tendencies.
What was it that led to the Nobel prize winners' statement? Not a sense of oracular wisdom but of obligation. The thought was present that individuals who had shared the experience of discovery should be able to agree on a great deal more. Nobel was right; science engenders "idealistic tendencies."
The pursuit of discovery is shot through with idealism. Discovery originates in the unsupported belief that the book of creation is open to being read. So deep is this idealism that many are willing to devote the best years of their lives to the quest for discovery, although the odds against success are huge.
Idealism must also triumph over the painful fact that the first to read nature's story may well be someone other than oneself. But the truth must be acknowledged, whatever the hands that uncover it. Christian truth cannot be elevated over Muslim truth. Nor can accepted truth, backed by the massed armies of orthodoxy, be protected against the claims of upstart facts. One can trace a sense of noblesse oblige to these idealistic origins.
What, then, do these voices say? The opening sentence is bold enough to claim that the dominant forces shaping history are rational. This was contentious when written in early July and appeared still more so following Sept. 11. The ferocity of the September attacks led Americans to believe that the attackers were insane.
However, it came to be recognized that sustained terrorism has its causes and purposes. The question of rationality or irrationality is important, since what lies (to a large extent) within the realm of reason can (to a large extent) be countered by policies grounded in reason.
Of course, the statement is as much about threats from states as from nonstate groups, and about threats of mass destruction as well as conventional threats.
The dominant setting for conflict in each case, it claims, is a world in which the rich and the poor live in full sight of one another. If, in addition, the poor are voiceless, they may well be induced to speak through violence. Particularly so if their predicament is aggravated by the environmental carelessness of the rich.
It is a peculiar folly, under these circumstances, for the rich to seek greater riches by selling weapons to the poor.
Even without this, the prosperous grow ever more vulnerable. Advanced societies are complex and fragile. They operate efficiently by being open, not guarded. Like any complex mechanism, they are therefore vulnerable to the wrecker's ball.
To avoid a tragic outcome, the statement says, we shall be forced to do what we should have done previously. That is to recognize abroad what we have long recognized domestically: the right of all to food, shelter, education and freedom of expression. This is a revolution in thinking that is already under way. What is lacking is a sense of urgency.
Zhou Enlai allegedly remarked that it was too early to assess the consequences of the French Revolution. But it is not too early to identify its origins in the willful blindness of the French ruling class of the 18th century. Possessed of wealth and power, they offered only promises to the poor.
Unless we recognize that the future of each depends on the good of all, the coming years will bring escalating conflict. One need not be a rocket scientist to see that.
However, the recognition that science has thrived on change could persuade us to behave more like rocket scientists. We might even come to realize that idealism is today the highest form of realism.
Mr. Polanyi, of the University of Toronto, is the coordinator of the Nobel statement above. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986.