The Limits of Science


The Limits Of Science P.B. Medawar

What a disappointment this book tuned out to be. After a great start- humble, funny, making small jokes at science culture and showing a wide breadth of knowledge in different areas of culture, especially poetry, and right out of the gate admitting that science has no role in creating a government - he goes all in for fulsome praise of Science, calling it by far man’s highest achievement. The “limits of science” appear to be almost none it turns out, beside “first and last causes”. He ends the book with a ringing defense of his atheism.

He does spend an entire paragraph on Metaphysics. (Bacon said that his “method” would end Metaphysics!). Medawar doesn’t go quite that far. He admits some value in metaphysics. Strangely, he finds ‘fraud” to be a much bigger issue in metaphysics than in “science”.

He makes some gratuitous praise of fluoridation of water out of nowhere as if to say YES science should have a place in public policy and he of course praises vaccination and repeatedly brings up Edward Jenner.

He does say “I do not believe that, and indeed I consider it a cosmic blunder to believe, ..that the exercise of reason is sufficient to explain our condition and where necessary to remedy it”, and “I fear we may never be able to answer the questions about the first and last things that have been the subject of this short essay- questions to do with the origin, purpose and destiny of man…”

It seems to pain him to admit this and he spends little time examining what this means, ending the above sentence with “..we know however that as individuals and as political people, we do have some say in what comes next, so what could our destiny be except what we make it?”

What we make it and how using “science” within politics is the difficult question he ignores almost completely.

In terms of limits, no mention is made of science having no idea at all of how a thought is formed in the mind. Where does thought come form in the chemically soup of the brain? How does a memory of that thought get “stored” and recalled? Does science have any clue at all? The very basis of science itself, thinking and reason, will always be a mystery to science because human consciousness is a mystery and appears to be beyond science. So how should government and science function? Who should do the advising? Also no mention is made of the strange brew of science/commerce and government and profit and policy/control.

It’s positively weird. It blithely ignores the big questions while seemingly to address them. He did say he wanted to write a short book…but he could have at least thrown these questions out there as questions needing to be addressed.. They are not truly solvable with any certainty. It needs to be an ongoing discussion, debate and trial and error.

What are the limits of science? Science is great for mechanics- but once the line from chemistry to a living organism is crossed into biology, science needs to admit that it can rarely if ever provide certainty. Using physics to be a doctor or health coach is like using religion to form a government.

Biological life is too complex, and the incredible accomplishments of science in the technosphere of buildings and bridges and gadgets and cell phones and airplanes doesn’t translate in the same way to biology, and the improvement of life expectancy and quality of life for humans is based almost solely on electricity, improved transportation and improved nutrition created by the mechanical, sciences- the Physics.

Science is nowhere near close to understand life, but it has made great strides in understanding Physics. Life is infinitely more complex than physics because it includes the aspect of consciousness. The mechanical parts of life are communicating with each other somehow through consciousness.

How hydrogen reacts with oxygen can be sorted out. It’s mechanical/electrical. It’s Physics. But when the hypothalamus gland releases a hormone that triggers the pituitary gland to release a hormone that triggers the adrenal gland to release a hormone that regulates body temperature, sweat glands and glucose metabolism we are in an entirely different area - where there are so many different inputs that actual science of controlling for variables is impossible. And anyway how does the CRH hormone released by the hypothalamus know where to go? How does it recognize the pituitary gland? How does it dock in exactly the right place in a totally different location? How then does the ACTH hormone released in the brain by the pituitary gland travel to the kidney to dock in the adrenal grand to release the cortisol that then travels to multiple other organs triggering further nervous system and endocrine system responses that make up just the physical side of our existence which is triggered by the emotional and mental side of our existence which is METAPHYSICAL isn’t it, which then triggers more physical responses?

Kudos to science for all the remarkable discoveries regarding the pathways of molecules in the body but science needs to admit that out has created more questions than it has answered.

With such a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the nearly infinitely complex biology of a single person, creating policy based on an always uncertain science adds yet another ayer of complexity to any political decisions using science. Since each individual has a unique biochemistry and then each group of people has a unique social structure, making policy decisions using “science” will give little aid or comfort. The uncertainty is too great.

Witness the fiasco of the global response to Covid.

Science Will Win? Trust The Science? What a joke. It was the Science that killed us.

Science needs to address these issues and blanket mandates regarding individual health procedures need to be taken off the table.

Perhaps we should focus for now basic issues like clean water and clean air guidelines for instance. The science on fluoride has, since Medawar’s book was published, shown fluoride to be more toxic than lead, to lower IQ, and to have little effect on the health of teeth when put into water. Iii need to be applied directly, like in toothpaste) Would Medawar read that science and change his mind on his fluoride public policy advice? One would certainly hope so.