The last few weeks have been unsettling. There is a foreboding and unease about radical Islam, the fear, to paraphrase Winston Churchill that “the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Churchill inserted this last sentence of his 23 page typed speech with a red pen. Many historians have speculated about why he decided to close with such a warning and what he meant by perverted science.
In an article in The New Atlantis, Justin Lyons observes that Sir Winston was referring to the Nazi’s use of technology to wipe out Western civilization. In one of his many books, Churchill wrote: The material progress that science offers is “really only valuable in so far as it liberates the innate goodness of the human heart. It would not be a blessing but a curse if it rolled forward uncontrolled by the moral principles of simple decent men and women. It can never be our salvation. It may be our doom.”
The Nazis – as do the radical Islamist states of today – seek to use technology to obliterate, imprison and enslave humanity, to pave over the moral principles of most decent men and women and rebuild society according their worldview. These two evil forces have in common a belief that have absolute certainty.
As Jacob Bronowski, biologist and philosopher wrote in “The Ascent of Man”:
The Principle of Uncertainty fixed once for all the realisation that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.
We must guard against this mindset ourselves. Bronowski assert that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle should be called the tolerance principle. As Simon Critchley notes: “The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance. “
This lack of tolerance shows up in the discourse and debates of today. Setting aside the campus “crybullies” who have captured our attention, the current debate about drug prices – one of many over the past 50 years – is controlled by those who believe they have absolute certainty that by rationing drugs based on their measure of what a life is worth or what institutions they control should pay, we can save money and sustain medical innovation.
Whereas, human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty, there are those who wish to subvert science to their specific social and political agenda. They justify restricting access to new medicines and reducing drug prices without reducing the risk and cost of developing treatments by claiming – with absolute certainty – that doing so is necessary to keep America from going bankrupt and that doing so would actually increase innovation.
As I have written elsewhere, if the absolutists had won the day in the times past when they proposed the same policies, we would be bereft of the many medicines for HIV, TB, heart disease and various cancers that saved lives and transformed a difficult problem into a world filled with opportunity. We would die sooner, suffer more, love, learn and live less.
I am thankful to pharma for it is truly – warts and all – the most fruitful, sustained investment in the most personal and responsible manifestation of human knowledge: increasing the sustainability of humankind. It is the highest, most human use of free market capitalism and technology the world has ever seen. Pharma has contributed more good to our planet in a shorter period of time than any other commercial enterprise, precisely because it is always pushing back against certainty, against what is already known. And yes, at the core of this enterprise is not just a moral code, but a moral code that has shaped decent and just societies throughout history; every life – no matter who or where or how sick – has absolute value.
To pursue or use science to replace that moral code (with QALYs based on comparative effectiveness) is to pervert science anew.