The Runaway Brain
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Dec 1984, p. 185-203
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Suzuki, David, Speaker
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Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Questions posed as if from an anthropologist from China or Russian coming to Canada: What is this country called Canada? How do the people in this country see themselves? What do they perceive as their priorities? How to answer such questions? What an anthropologist might think of us from reading our newspapers and watching our T.V. The speaker's premise that what our preoccupations seem to be, according to our newspapers and television, actually have very little of long-term or broad interest or significance. "The most powerful force shaping our life today … is Science." An exploration and analysis of that view. Why the speaker thinks his claim is true, with discussion and examples following. Ways in which Canada is an underdeveloped country. The role of a scientist in society. Assumptions made about science that are not true. What science does. The nature of science. The strength of science. Science and great scientific leaps of the past. How that happens. Most modern scientific research for destructive purposes. The lack of scientific knowledge in our leaders. The danger of that lack of scientific knowledge in terms of decisions and policies. The need to become better educated with regard to science.
Date of Original
6 Dec 1984
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Empire Club of Canada
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Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
THE RUNAWAY BRAIN
December 6, 1984
The President Catherine R. Charlton, M.A., Chairman

C.R. Charlton

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen: Most of us feel that we know our speaker, David Suzuki. The reason is television. You may read articles by people and hear them on radio, but you do not get the same feeling of acquaintanceship, of having met them before, that television gives you. Given this acquaintanceship, I will just offer some background detail.

He was born in Vancouver, the only son among three sisters, to a Japanese-Canadian family. Inevitably, as he reports, "the sun rose and set on me." Being a very traditional family, however, there was considerable pressure on the only son to go out into the world and be a success. As a result, at a very early age he learned to do whatever he did to the utmost limit of his energy and ability. His father used to warn him, "David you have to be ten times better than a white, because if you are just as good as a white, you'll lose out every time." He gives great credit to his family, particularly to his father, for his highly successful career. His father would take him on fishing trips and walks. "We would just look at the birds, the animals and the trees," Dr. Suzuki reports, "and I would just ask questions. My father would identify everything and tell me stories about them."

When David was five years old World War 11 broke out. The family spent four years in a concentration camp and when the war ended the Suzuki family, now with no economic stake in British Columbia, moved to Ontario to start life over again. David began his formal education in a one-room school near Windsor. He took up the hobby of collecting insects and arranging them in proper entomological order. Then the family moved to London where David attended high school, distinguishing himself by being elected school president. He earned his first degree at Amherst College in Massachusetts, then a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He rounded off his education by spending a few years doing post-doctoral research in some of the best known natural science laboratories in the United States, including the Biology Division of Oak Ridges National Laboratory in Tennessee, a lab which if I recall correctly was not unassociated with the atomic bomb.

Perhaps I have spent a disproportionate amount of time on Dr. Suzuki's youth. I did so because it so accurately forecasted his adult career, his love of natural science, his drive to excel in everything he did, and his marvellous ability to popularize science for the layman. Since 1962 Dr. Suzuki has taught at the university level, first in Alberta, then for twenty years at the University of British Columbia where since 1979 he has been Senior Professor in the Science Department. Through newspapers, magazines, radio and more than a dozen programs on television he has fascinated readers, listeners and viewers by explaining to them some of the marvels of science. He has been active in the Civil Rights movement and is a founding member of Scientists for Social Responsibility. Many honours and awards have been his over the years, and these are richly deserved.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to introduce Dr. David Suzuki.

David Suzuki

I am afraid I cannot possibly live up to an introduction like that. I am amazed anyone knows that I was an insect collector when I was young. When I received the invitation to address the Empire Club, I was immediately reminded of my boyhood in Leamington, Ontario after we left British Columbia. I had a very good pal there who wanted me to join a club that he belonged to called the "Sons of England." And I remember my father being humiliated when the local butcher asked him "are you sure there isn't anyone in your family with a close tie to England somewhere?"

The Empire Club strikes me with that same kind of dissonance. Nevertheless I am very happy to be here and believe me this is the only place that would ever get me dressed in a suit like this. The title for my talk today is "The Runaway Brain." At the time that I was contacted, we thought this would be the title of a series to go to air beginning February 6 - a series of eight one-hour shows. Unfortunately, in the interim, the title of the series has changed from "The Runaway Brain" to "A Planet for the Taking". At that time I thought I would talk about some of the issues that we will be raising in this, what I hope will be provocative and exciting look at our relationship with the environment. But I chose instead to change the title to something a little more directly related to our concerns - to the concerns of the people here - so with your indulgence then, I will modify the content of my talk.

First I would like to pose the question that an anthropologist from China or Russia might pose coming to this country.

What is this country called Canada? How do the people in this country see themselves? What do they perceive as their priorities?

Now if I were an anthropologist coming here from a different country, probably the quickest way to get an idea of what the people think is of importance to them

- how they identify themselves - would be to read the daily newspapers and to watch the television news every night. I think within a few weeks you would get a very clear idea of what the Canadian priorities are. They are concern with Quebec nationalism, with Western alienation, with unemployment, with inflation, and at one time with the Pope's visit, the Queen's visit, how well we did in the Olympics, whether Wayne Gretzky', is going to win the scoring title - these are the kinds' of issues we spend an enormous amount of time in the media discussing; clearly these are important issues for Canadians.

I would suggest that it is a very strange fact that our preoccupation with these kinds of issues, totally misses the fact that none of these issues is of much importance in the long term for the survival or the viability of this country and culture. None of these issues in a long-term sense will matter very much. We have spent enormous amounts of time in the media with "who will be the new leader of the Conservatives or the Liberals?" I am sure that within five years no one, or very few of us, will remember even who the major contenders for the title were; and that in ten or fifteen years names like Clark and Mulroney and even Trudeau will not be very significant in terms of the nature of the society we live in at that time.

The fact is that the most powerful force shaping our life today is none of those issues - it is Science. Science when applied by industry, medicine and the military is by far the most explosive force that influences our lives today, and yet to look at the media you would get no impression that this was the case. Now you might as business people, lawyers, professional people, think that I am making an outrageous claim; that I am a scientist and all I am trying to do is to impress you with how important science is so I will get a larger grant and so on. I see someone nodding very vigorously there, and I hope you are not in charge of grants!

... all I am trying to do is to impress you with how important science is ...

Let me try to illustrate why I feel very strongly that my claim is true. When I was the age of my five-year old daughter, my mother and father never worried that I was watching too much television as I do about my five-year old daughter. When I was five years old there was no television anywhere in the world. When I was five years old my mother and father would not let me go swimming in public pools or go to movies in the summer because they were afraid I would get polio. Most youngsters today do not know what polio is. When I was five years old hundreds of thousands of people every year died on this planet from smallpox, and many times that number were horribly scarred for life. There has not been a case of smallpox on the entire planet for five years. It is considered extinct. When I was five years old there were no computers, there were no oral contraceptives, there were no tranquillizers, there were no satellites, there were no jets, there were no nuclear bombs or nuclear plants, there were no plastics, there were no antibiotics. At that time there were no organ transplants; we did not know how many chromosomes human beings have, what D.N.A. was or what it did; we did not know the cause of sex or Down's Syndrome; we had no amniocentesis - all of these things have become a part of our daily lives within my lifetime, and each of these has totally changed the nature not only of our society but the way that we look at ourselves and define ourselves as human beings.

I do a lot of talking to youngsters in schools - and when I tell them what life was like when I grew up they stare at me in total astonishment, and the first question they invariably ask is "what did you do?" To a youngster today a world devoid of television is inconceivable, an ancient civilization long extinct; and they are absolutely right. That world is gone forever and we will never recover a time like that. Our world has been changed dramatically by these and many, many other discoveries and inventions within my lifetime. We are

... I am absolutely sure that my daughters will take it for granted that if they want to travel in outer space they will ...

already almost through the watershed year of 1984. At the end of this year we will be sixteen years from the year 2000. Our children will spend the bulk of their lives - my children will spend all of their adult lives - in the twenty-first century. And we can only barely imagine the kind of things that they will take for granted in their lives. I am absolutely sure that my daughters will take it for granted that if they want to travel in outer space they will; if they want to live permanently in giant space colonies or in colonies on the moon (they may mine the moon for satellites) that they will be able to do so; that they will be able to talk to machines far more intelligent than they are; that they will be able to re-grow new organs or limbs when they are cut off or clone themselves; they will be able not only to predict but to control weather, earthquakes and floods; that they will live in a world with many, many more powerful drugs and weapons; that they will live in a world far different from that we take for granted today.

So I will ask the man who is shaking his head vigorously - "Do you feel that I have supported my contention that science by far is the most powerful force shaping our lives, and are you convinced?" It is a very strange fact then that we live in this world so powerfully affected by science when it is applied through industry, medicine, technology - and yet we are totally unaware of this reality. We have evolved as a country with many paradoxes. We see ourselves as a technologically advanced country, and yet try going home to look at the labels from the clothes you wear, to your television set, to your dishwasher, to your refrigerator, to your car, to all of your digital equipment, and tell me where they were produced and manufactured. By far the majority of them were not made in this country.

We are not an industrialized or a highly technologically advanced country at all. We are a Third World country. We are a country that basically lives by selling its raw resources and buying our technology back, and to think that we belong in the category with the European nations or with the United States I think is simply fooling ourselves. But we have this fundamental failure to perceive that reality. If we go out and do what we in the media call "streeters" (person on the street interviews), and you ask people "excuse me do you feel that science affects you in your daily life?" - the shocking fact is that the overwhelming majority of people will say no, not really. We do not perceive ourselves as living with that reality. This ignorance of the impact of science and technology is exacerbated by the school system which tends in the the lower schools to be geared to the small number of students who will eventually graduate and go on to university and science. For most students in our schools science is a total turn-off. It is what they drop out of as soon as they can. The great bulk of our high school graduates cannot name the major organs in their bodies, cannot tell you where they are located or what they do. And if they know so little about their own bodies, you can only imagine how little they know about the world around them. Our school system is failing in a fundamental way.

This preamble, rather a long preamble, is all by way' of introduction or explanation as to why I, as a scientist, have been involved for the last twenty-three years of my life in this vulgar medium of television and also radio - why I feel that it is very important that we use the media to try to inform the public about these important forces that are shaping their lives. Today, although the public is uninformed as to what science is doing and how it affects them, the role of the scientist in society is a very special one. I believe that scientists have replaced the religious leaders of the nineteenth`, century as a people who now dispense truth. Scientists are the high priests of society and we look to them to give us the ultimate verification. Unfortunately it is generally whether this rectal suppository or underarm deodorant is better than another - but if a scientist comes on air and says four out of five tests show such and such, that is the ultimate ring of truth. Scientists then are the people to whom we look to provide us with truth, and I believe as a society the way that we understand sicence is so naïve that we make a lot of assumptions that are simply not true. And I would like to look at those assumptions for the rest of my talk. We make these assumptions, and I believe only exacerbate our problem of dealing with science in a wise way. We believe, for example, as a society that what science does is to seek the absolute truth. We are trying to find the way things really are, and I will show you in a minute that is not true. We believe that science by virtue of it replicability - I can do an experiment here in Toronto, it can be repeated in Russia or in Japan or in China, and it can be repeated over the years - the replicability in other places and time is an indication that science is value free. If a Chinese scientist can reproduce what I get, obviously we come out with the same conclusions. Science is value free. That is a basic assumption we make. It is simply not true.

... Science is value free. That is a basic assumption we make. It is simply not true ...

We believe also that science, when it is applied by industry, medicine and the military - can lead to problems such as pollution and other problems associated with technology. We believe we can shut it off. If we find that the technology is too troublesome, we can always withdraw it and stop. This is another assumption which I think is absolutely incorrect.

Finally, it is a fundamental act of faith on the part of scientists and citizens that we create technology through our scientific insight and invention. We create it, we control it - technology in fact is our servant and we are its masters - and I would suggest again that this assumption is simply not true. Let me then deal with each of these four assumptions to try to show you why I think we as a society have got to look at these issues much more carefully.

Science is in the business of seeking truth. Most young science students today believe this, that we are in the business of finding out what nature and the cosmos is really like. Well, if you had asked people that before they discovered atomic radiation or radioisotopes or the fact of x-rays, they would have believed that they had the latest picture on what the universe and the cosmos is all about. They would have believed that this is the ultimate picture of matter and energy, and of course then they discovered radioactivity and radiation and other phenomena that had not been imagined before.

Science is not in fact in the business of finding absolute truth. What. science does is try to explain the dispa-, rate number of facts or observations, try to put these ,, into some meaningful framework or context, within which you can carry out further experiments. In fact what science is in the business of doing is showing that your latest ideas of the way the world is are wrong. Science is constantly modifying, changing or throwing out ideas. When I graduated as a fully licensed geneticist in 1961, I believed that we really had the inside track on what chromosomes really were like, and now when I look back at the models that we had and all of the excitement that we had when these papers were being published, we simply have to laugh and say "my God how could we possibly have believed that in light of what we know today".

That is the nature of science, and its great strength is that we do not find absolute truth - science is constantly changing its ideas, is constantly modifying and throwing out. So we must get over the idea that what science does is to provide the ultimate reality or truth - it does not. Is it not true that science is value free? We are finding out about the world objectively, free of any kind of bias or limitations in the way we look at the world. Data are data, this is true - a piece of information obtained in an experiment in Russia or China or the United States or Canada is the same if the experiments are replicated faithfully. But the fact is that data by themselves are of no value. One has to ask questions within which, or that formulate how we do an experiment to get those data. Then we have to read the data as they come out and interpret them, and all of those - the way we carried out the experiment and the interpretation - are very, very laden with our own cultural blinders, our own limitations and bias. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In the nineteenth century one of the great scientists of all time was a man named Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was born at a time when there was still a great deal of slavery in the world, when it was accepted that the white races were the superior races, when colonialism and imperialism where still rampant, when there was a great deal of commitment to mercantilism and the whole free enterprise exploitation of more primitive peoples. And it was within that context that Darwin made his great discovery - that organisms are not static creatures, that they change over time, that we evolve through natural selection. But Darwin's interpretation of his theory was set within a framework that he solved through his own cultural biases. He saw nature and its evolution as read in tooth and claw. He saw evolution as a constant struggle, as a battle for survival, and the dominance of the superior individual or the survivor. That was all seen as a legitimate reflection on nature which was, of course, a reflection of what his society saw as reality. Today many evolutionists say that is one way of looking at evolution, but there are other ways of interpreting this process.

We can say that creatures evolve through interaction and mutualism of co-operation. If you look at a great eco-system like a choral community you find a very complex community of individuals which co-operate together and work together in mutualism, or what we call symbiosis. But Darwin was a person of his time and had to see nature as read in tooth and claw and struggling for dominance, and of course it fit very well into that particular climate.

Let me give you something a little closer to home, in the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century people were very keen on understanding how the brain worked and how it correlated with our intellectual abilities. And at one time it was believed that one's intellectual prowess was really a direct reflection of the size of the brain.

... And at one time it was believed that one's intellectual prowess was really a direct reflection of the size of the brain ...

So scientists spent a great deal of time taking skulls and filling them full of lead b.b.'s and then pouring them out and weighing the b.b.'s or counting the b.b.'s to get an idea what the cranial capacity of people was. And sure enough they discovered that black people had smaller brains than white people, and that women had smaller brains than men; and it fell exactly as it was expected. Then someone made the discovery that, in fact, there is no clear correlation between brain size and intelligence. Then phrenology became all the rage - when you feel the bumps on the skull, and of course those bumps were reflections of the structure of the brain underneath, and there were certain parts of the brain that were associated with intellectual ability and one of those parts was identified early this century.

So anatomists began to look at pickled brains and to measure them and write down the numbers and sure enough they found that blacks had smaller parts of the brain that correlated with intelligence, and women had smaller sections than men. Then it was discovered that that area had nothing to do with intelligence, and scientists went back again and re-measured those same brains and found there were no statistically significant differences. So you have to say, "What's going on? Why the differences?" The fact is that we, scientists, are human beings first and foremost. We are what we are through our culture and our own personal experiences and genetic limitations and we will have blinders; therefore one must get over the idea that science is a culture free activity. It is no more culture free than any other activity.

I think we must get over the idea that we can shut technology down. The more powerful the technology is, the more useful it is, the more convenient it is, and once you have a technology in place the idea that you can ever do it the old way is ludicrous. There are people who call themselves Neo-Luddites - you remember the Luddites were people that wanted to destroy the machines during the Industrial Revolution. It is foolish to talk about getting rid of the technology. Once the technology is in place you are stuck with it, and the history of science and technology is that you go onward from there - you cannot just say computers are dangerous and turn them off and not use them anymore. You must go forward. So let us not make that assumption that we can always eliminate technology if it is troublesome.

I would like to spend the rest of my time on the question - "Since we create technology, we tell technology what to do - we are ultimately its master." That is the assumption that has always comforted many people, but I would suggest that it is simply no longer valid to make that assumption. First of all, the great bulk of all scientists carry out work today around the world for the military. Most scientific research is for destructive purposes.

... Most scientific research is for destructive purposes ...

The overwhelming majority of the remainder of the scientific community carry out research for private industry for profit. So destruction and profit are the two primary motivations in the application of science. The lag time between a discovery and its application today is very, very short. Often it is measured in a matter of weeks or months. When a discovery is made, someone is going to find a way to make a new weapon or to make a million bucks on it. Now that means then that the public rarely has access to new discovery before that discovery is applied. Scientists working for the military or for private industry are very quick to make a new weapon, or to make a profit from it.

It has always been the assumption in a democracy that we elect politicians to look out for our interests; that they are our representatives who will ask the question, "Hey, wait a minute, before you make the new weapon or a million bucks, what's going to be the effect on people or the long-term impact on the environment?" And the problem that we face from that standpoint is that if you look at the nature of our elected representatives (at their background), you find a rather shocking thing. Eighty to ninety per cent of our M.P's - and I do not think it is any different at the provincial or the municipal level - come from two areas of professions in society. They are business people and they are lawyers.

... A few years ago we did a test on Fifty m.e's and gave them a simple text for their comprehension of science, terms and ideas ... They simply had no idea ...

A few years ago we did a test on fifty M.P's and gave them a simple text for their comprehension of science, terms and ideas. I see some people smiling - you have heard this line before. And the fact is, that lawyers and businessmen came out absolutely rock bottom. They simply had no idea what the most elementary terms and concepts were. Now these are people who are going to make decisions that will affect society long after they are gone, that will affect us into the twenty-first century! They are going to have to make decisions about the future of Canada's medical care, about the future of satellite communications, about our forests, about our fisheries, about pollution, about the impact of computers in the workplace, about whether to go for fusion vs. vision, about our Candu reactor - all of these are issues that require a considerable understanding of science and technology. And the people we elect to look after or consider these are simply not competent to make judgements that have a scientific or technological base! I believe that we are a society that thinks we are in control of our own destiny, that thinks our representatives are looking out for us. But that simply is not so because our elected representatives are scientifically illiterate, and there is such a short lag-time between discovery and application of new technology that we do not have time to really assess it before it is already applied.

Let me finally conclude with an indication that we already have a technology that is so powerful and so fast that it is literally out of human control. We have already in fact the technology that is beyond the human scale to control it - our nuclear weapons. It has nothing to do with the number of weapons and the delivery systems, it has to do with the fact that we have six minutes from the time a weapon is launched to the time it lands, and no human being can respond to the knowledge that the fate of the world hangs in the balance in six minutes. And from what I understand, having read the literature, we have giant super computers that take in all of the information from our spy satellites, that feed the information about where the weapons are going, where they will land, what the destructive power is, and give us a list of possible options to react within six minutes from the time those missiles are launched. And I believe that since that six-minute window is very short, the number of options will decrease very quickly till you get down to a time when the computer says, "You must fire your weapons now. If you don't, forget it."

Since I do not believe that any human being can respond within the six-minute time span in any rational way - a computer must be programmed so that when it gets down to one option it must fire on its own. I would suggest that here we have the technology that is literally out of human control.

Science is the most powerful force shaping our lives today. If we as a people are to deal with that in any kind of enlightened wise way, we had better become more conversant with science -each and every one of us.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Dr. Harold Cranfield, a Past President of the Club.

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The Runaway Brain


Questions posed as if from an anthropologist from China or Russian coming to Canada: What is this country called Canada? How do the people in this country see themselves? What do they perceive as their priorities? How to answer such questions? What an anthropologist might think of us from reading our newspapers and watching our T.V. The speaker's premise that what our preoccupations seem to be, according to our newspapers and television, actually have very little of long-term or broad interest or significance. "The most powerful force shaping our life today … is Science." An exploration and analysis of that view. Why the speaker thinks his claim is true, with discussion and examples following. Ways in which Canada is an underdeveloped country. The role of a scientist in society. Assumptions made about science that are not true. What science does. The nature of science. The strength of science. Science and great scientific leaps of the past. How that happens. Most modern scientific research for destructive purposes. The lack of scientific knowledge in our leaders. The danger of that lack of scientific knowledge in terms of decisions and policies. The need to become better educated with regard to science.