Science: transcending national ideology

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2008 8:00 am

I’ve written about Brian Cox before; he’s a UK physicist working on the new Large Hadron Collider in France. He’s a smart fellow, as you might expect.

He was interviewed for Wired magazine, and in the course of talking about life at CERN (the research lab in charge of the LHC) this exchange occurred:

Wired: CERN has about 5,600 scientists from dozens of countries running the experiments. How does this mini United Nations get along? Had any bar fights yet?

Cox: No, it’s a miracle. It’s one of the great things about CERN, when you see what strange bedfellows it’s created. We’ve got Iran and Pakistan and the U.S. and Israel. List any two counties that you think wouldn’t be able to get along and they’re at CERN, getting along. I think it’s one of the great achievements at CERN; and CERN is very proud of it. They’re very insistent, for example, that the U.S. has to sign papers with Iranian scientists. In general, the U.S. doesn’t sign papers with scientists from particular countries. That ethos is very strong at CERN; that there’s one CERN in the world and it’s part of the world and everybody who wants to work at CERN is allowed to work at CERN.

He’s right. I’ve heard the same story from international missions with NASA and other astronomy projects as well. Sure, there can be personality conflicts, and individuals have their own idiosyncrasies, but as a group, scientists tend to transcend national ideologies.

Sagan talks about this in several of his books; he would meet with Soviet scientists back when the Cold War was strong, and they would risk political suicide — and severe punishment — just to do the science. When I was working with different NASA missions, it was common to be side-by-side with people of all nationalities, and it usually hardly ever came up except in the introductions (or to compare cultures, which was always fun). Hubble, as one example, has equipment from several countries on board, as does GLAST, which launches in a few months.

I know it’s not just science; other fields have similar stories. When I hear things like this, I will readily and happily admit it makes my heart sing. It reminds me that in almost all cases, there are more similarities joining us all than there are differences. But our brains are wired to detect those differences, so they take on an import that is magnified beyond what they deserve.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes. I know I do. It’s nice to have my own preconceptions shaken — well, maybe "nice" is the wrong word; it can be difficult, it can be painful, and it can be embarrassing, but it is also necessary. Reality is what it is — I might venture to offer that up as a definition — and we have to overcome our prejudices and accept that. Scientists have just as many prejudices as anyone else, of course. It’s just that the thrill of discovery and the search for knowing are more important.

Maybe we all need a little more scientific method in our lives.

Ironically, after I had drafted this post, I read an article in the New York Times by science writer Dennis Overbye.
It seems that there are issues science sometimes can’t overcome.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. » Science: transcending national ideology | March 3, 2008
  1. Nigel Depledge

    Hear, hear, Phil.

  2. Donnie B.

    Richard Rhodes makes a similar point in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. In general, the scientists at Los Alamos and other Manhattan Project sites hated the compartmentalization and restrictions that the project’s secrecy required. Many of those scientists went on to support proposals for international control of nuclear energy (which as we know did not prevail).

    The very nature of science encourages openness and free flow of information. These things tend to promote understanding and acceptance of other people, both within and beyond the narrow bounds of scientific work.

    Of course, there have been notable exceptions to this “science as peacemaker” phenomenon. Edward Teller springs to mind.

  3. Wouter Lievens

    This isn’t limited to science or academia, it happens in corporate culture as well. In 2006 I attended an introduction event organized by my employer and witnessed an Israeli woman talking with Brits of Pakistani, Syrian and Iranian origin.

    I guess you can generalize your post: educated people such as scientists, engineers, artists and other professionals don’t make a fuss about national ideologies… only the educated masses, religious bigots and the politicians they elect do.

  4. Brad Koehn

    I agree that by and large scientists are not terribly concerned about their nationalities (or those of their colleagues’).

    But it’s not like scientists have some kind of Utopian lock on how to get along. Tremendous egos, vanity, and a general unwillingness to accept ideas that might coincidentally result in a loss of funding pervade the field.

    Sometimes it seems like you feel as though scientists have it all figured out, and the rest of the world would be much better off if we all acted like them. I wonder if scientists realize how much they have yet to learn from the rest of the world?

  5. And as I wrote very clearly in my post, “I know it‚Äôs not just science; other fields have similar stories.”

  6. In any capacty where people work with foreigners or other ethnicities on an equal footing, racism and xenophobia usually disappear. Yet, some of those same people in other situations rile against the faceless masses of immigrants, “who steal our jobs and take our women”. That is a more subtle signature of racism and xenophobia.

    Having said that, I do believe that scientists are a little bit more consistent in this than other people, because they tend to think more about the bigger picture in a logical way.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Ego, where would we be without you???

    Some scientists(Newton springs to mind) had HUGH egos but they had good reason to prize their own opinions above that of anyone else. Other people, just as talented, manage to keep theirs in check, realizing no one human can know everything. Thus they are open to critical input.

    Working in Saudi Arabia allowed me to interact with people from numerous other cultures. Exposure to those enabled me to see we are all one people with the same basic needs and desires. We just have a very diverse approach to attaining those. Integrating the Scientific Method into our world view gives us the most powerful tool we’ve ever developed to separate wishful thinking from reality. Unfortunately, it is not a tool well taught in our educational system. Which is the whole point of this bLog, trying to inculcate that tool into our world view, advertising it to the world.

    Rock on, Phil,,,

    GAry 7

  8. As someone who works in the information security field, I can tell you that nobody is more frustrating to work with than academic/scientific folks. The mere suggestion that information should be compartmentalized and kept on a need-to-know basis goes against the very foundation of academia – that information should be free to anyone willing to attempt to comprehend it.

    And to a great degree, I agree with that philosophy… if the world was perfect and there were no bad people who would abuse information or use it for evil purposes. Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world.

  9. BaldApe

    I suspect that the collegial attitude among scientists and members of other fields would also be found among politicians. Often, Senators and Congressmen who are adamantly opposed to each others’ positions on issues are nonetheless great friends.

    Businessmen who are trying to take over somebody else’s company or put them out of business through competition are still often civil when they encounter each other socially. They have an attitude that “it’s just business.”

    Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it all.

  10. Let’s just blame the politicians for the not-getting-along ideal. It’s all their posturing that causes the trouble.

    As has been said by others, you get just people together and (most of the time) nationalistic phobias go out the window.

    We all need to stand together….

    against the Intelligent Design and conspiracy idiots. :)

  11. CQT

    I’d like to agree, but then I remember reading that back in the late 19th and early 20th Century, scientists used Eugenics to justify limiting the numbers of Eastern Europeans from entering into the United States. Not a complete Utopia, but I’d like to dream for the scientific method as the means to unify us all.

  12. Gary

    It basically comes down to motivation of the people in a group with disparate membership. If the goal is something they all value highly, other differences that might get in the way are submerged and the participants are highly cooperative. The problems we generally have in the world result from groups that have goals antithetical to another group. The struggle for dominance arises when both want superior authority to control the issue. There is no common goal, only a common prize that each decides must be kept from the other.

    What to make friends? Figure out a way to have a common goal rather than being competitive.

  13. Yes CERN is a really nice place. Had the chance to visit it for three days (a field trip organized by a prof. at my university), and you find people from all over the world there.

    But just to clarify – Most parts of the Large Hadron Collider are underneath switzerland as far as i know, and so are most of the entrances to the installation. Or did you mean that Mr. Cox is indeed working at a place in france. It confused me a little bit.

    And to be picky ūüėČ The term CERN refers only to the council of the participating countries. The correct name for the research facillities is CERN laboratories. At least this is what we were told.

    Nice interview!

  14. quasidog

    That’s a great story. I had not really given the international aspect of the LHC any consideration. It would be so good if more of these sort of stories regarding international co-operation could make it to the first 10 minutes on the 6 o’clock news, rather than than what we have at present. I guess the moral I get out of this story is, ‘Science and the pursuit of truth can assist in unifying nations’. That is a comforting thought.

  15. Blu-Ray-Ven

    SCIENCE – the great bringer of peace and unity

  16. One Eyed Jack

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone that has traveled to other countries to work. It has been my experience that the politics of nations are largely that, of nations.

    Individuals are the same everywhere. Most people are just working to make a decent life for themselves and their families.

    A nation really is greater than the sum of the individuals living there. When left to individuals, most of the issues of nations become inconsequential.


  17. Sorry to crash the party but according to what I heard recently from a scientist involved in one of the two giant LHC detectors, there is actually an extremely competitive atmosphere at CERN, with actual fears that one team’s data might be stolen by the competing group! Thus the many co-authors of critical papers (among which spies may lurk) get to see the full data only shortly before it’s being submitted for publication and thus on the record.

    Perhaps the physicist who told me that was a bit paranoid, but given the huge investment of money and brain time in the LHC project and the thousands of people having a stake in it, it makes some sense …

    Let’s see how things play out when the first ATLAS and CMS papers with something substantial will be published!

  18. Cusp

    I was a summer student at CERN in Ting’s group (working on L3) –

    1 – Yes, loads of nationalities got on quite happily

    2 – the groups were cut-throat in data and priority of results

    My (now) outside view of particle physics is that the group structures (not only at CERN) are well and truly alive and kicking.

  19. “But our brains are wired to detect those differences…”

    Wired, or taught?

  20. shane

    It’s great that all the scientists are getting on but when they turn on the collider they’re going to kill us all when they create a mini black hole that will drop to the centre of the earth…

  21. MandyDax

    Shane, I think you forgot your <sarcasm> </sarcasm> tags. I hope you just forgot…

    For example:
    <sarcasm>I saw the docudrama on what will happen when they calculate the mass of the Higg’s boson. I think it was called Lexx or something like that. There was a giant Holland-eating dragonfly. Anyway, the whole of the planet Earth was compressed to the size of a pea!</sarcasm>

  22. quasidog

    I’d rather they be competitive and such about this, as it means less error. It is still good to see them all working together. Imagine if they got so friendly but, that they let friendship get in the way of accuracy and precision. “Sure, I don’t think he calculated that bit correctly, but I really like the guy, I’d hate to see him get sacked .. ” …..

  23. tussock

    I always figured nationalism was just about making sure the people of country “U” don’t feel bad about all the people their national army is killing over in country “I”.

    Just to pick two completely random letters out of the alphabet.

  24. Gary Ansorge writes:

    [[Working in Saudi Arabia allowed me to interact with people from numerous other cultures.]]

    Just a bit of sour grapes — I wouldn’t be allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, since I’m “racially” Jewish. They don’t allow Jews in the country, though they made a temporary exception during Desert Storm. They nearly refused to allow Henry Kissinger into the country when Kissinger was the US Secretary of State.

    One more reason I’m not fond of the government of Saudi Arabia.

  25. Tim Abbott

    “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it. ” – William Shakespeare.

    Patriotism is an intrinsically subjective phenomenon. Scientists are (usually) predisposed to adopt an objective viewpoint. They are interested in something that transcends national boundaries, to which those boundaries are, if anything, actual obstacles. If another person has a potentially productive point of view, the scientist will be interested in it. To not show an interest would not simply be antithetical to science but also against the scientist’s personal self-interest because it would also compromise their ability to do science.

    That said, scientists are also human, and as prone to political biases as the next man perhaps, sometimes, even more so because they are so adamant that they have an objective point of view. Do not imagine that the distribution of nationalities at an institution does not affect the working environment, nor that the countries who foot the bill do not exert an influence on what is done there.

  26. shane

    MandyDax, I don’t know about sarcasm but I do know about cosmic irony:

    Anyway, my mama always told me that sarcasm was the lowest form of wit and I would never stoop so low… meh, who am I kidding.

  27. Frietag

    I used to think that science transcended ideology. But that was before I studied the history of science.

    And you don’t have to go back in history. The current debate over global warming (I should be precise and say “human-caused global warming”) isn’t transcending squat. Both sides would agree on that.

    It’s not quite science of course. In fact I would say that calling it a debate over “observation” is incorrect. “Urban VIII v. Galileo Galilei” was a debate about observation (specifically, observation vs. hypothesis). The global-warming debate is a debate about “observation-based modeling”, which is much muddier.

    Ever tried to argue against warming? I have. And that was before my current jaded, cynical attitude kicked in. It’s always useful to try that, to see how firm your side is …

    Anyway, It’s not fun. You get yelled at over things that won’t happen for a hundred years if they happen at all, but as if they already happened. It’s like arguing over the diameter of the planet Vulcan. The hypothetical one that was supposed to be influencing Mercury’s orbit. in 1899.

    The sad fact is that at this point, most of the pro-warming arguments seem to begin and end at “the scientific consensus”. Which isn’t bad. Citing the current consensus is a valid strategy. Urban VIII used it quite effectively in the above example. But it’s not argument – not dispositive, nor usefully testable.

    Nothing transcends ideology. To paraphrase an argument from another arena, the problem is not that some scientists are Republicans and some are Democrats. The problem is that 100% of scientists are humans.

    If an alien came to this planet, learned English, got herself an Internet connection, and read any week’s worth of “Bad Astronomy,” would she conclude that this site’s content “transcended ideology”? Of course not. (Maybe at first, but then she’d run into yesterday’s “Phil. Harmonic.” post.)

    I must point out that Phil isn’t claiming that BA transcends anything. (As the Buddha might say, to claim detachment is to contradict it.) But neither is he claiming the contrary.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar