Perutz rubbishes Popper and Kuhn

Max Perutz, the Nobel prize-winning chemist, yesterday attacked the theories of science proposed by philosophers Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, dismissing them as being applicable "to only a few scientific activities".

Giving a lecture in Cambridge on "Living Molecules", he said he was concerned by the enormous authority that has been attached to these theories.

He explained that for Popper, scientists formulate hypotheses and then devise experiments to falsify them. Even if the experiments fail to falsify, they can never be proved since a future experiment might yet falsify them. Dr Perutz said: "Logically, this is true in principle but it rarely happens in practice."

And for Kuhn, science is dominated by a succession of paradigms such as Newtonian celestial mechanics which were modified by relativity.

Dr Perutz, founder and former chairman of the Medical Research Council's laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge, said: "While hypotheses in cosmology may be subject to revision, most of those in molecular biology are cast-iron. Nor did many of us begin with hypotheses." He said that Fred Sanger, for example, won the Nobel prize for chemistry twice by inventing methods. "He had no hypotheses of what he was going to find, but once determined, his results were not subject to revision. They are final and the same is true for the bulk of scientific knowledge. If it were not, jet planes could not fly, computers would not work and atomic bombs would not explode."

He criticised the social sciences for teaching students that scientific results were subjective. "They are taught that all scientific know-ledge is preliminary and conditioned by the social and cultural pressures to which scientists happen to be subjected."

In the hands of social scientists, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is but an expression of the cut-throat 19th-century capitalism of his time. Science is also alleged to be dominated by cliques who try to impose their paradigms on society: "This is a caricature of modern science yet it represents what future teachers, civil servants, journalists and politicians are taught."

He also criticised those scientists who he believes are attacking religion, focussing in particular on the pronouncements of biologist Richard Dawkins.

Dr Perutz, said: "It is one thing for scientists to oppose creationism which is demonstrably false but quite another to make pronouncements which offend people's religious faith -- that is a form of tactlessness which merely brings science into disrepute. My view of religion and ethics is simple: even if we do not believe in God, we should try to live as though we did."

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Featured Jobs

Director Development UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
Professor of Oil & Gas Engineering CRANFIELD UNIVERSITY
Head of Digital Learning UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE (MAIN CAMPUS)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering UNIVERSITY OF PORTSMOUTH

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Black scholar at UCL claims that he lost out on a permanent job after his proposed course ‘scared’ the academy

  • David Parkins illustration (28 May 2015)

Is there a way for the two tribes to rub along? An academic and an administrator consider the rules of engagement

  • James Fryer illustration (28 May 2015)

A process at the heart of science is based on faith rather than evidence, says Richard Smith, and vested interests keep it in place

London centre that hosts Moodle environment affected

Diana Beech explains why her choice at the ballot box was an act of defiance against other academics