Text: Bertrand Tappy

The promise, or “the poison of false hope”

By regularly guaranteeing spectacular innovations, the scientific community runs the risk of losing touch with the public. Researchers at the Lausanne University sounds the alarm in a new book.

In 17th century England, the king’s renowned councillor Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum. Despite never being finished, this monumental work is one of the pillars of modern empirical science. In it, the philosopher outlined an idea which was set

to enjoy great success. He advocated that, thanks to science, humankind could create the tools it needed to establish its understanding and domination of Nature.

At the end of the 20th century, a group of scientists from different nations launched the Human Genome Project. Their goal was to explain a huge number of phenomena in biology and in life by decoding human DNA, and hoped to develop new medical treatments.

Despite the 400 years between the two events, both ideas have something in common: these ambitious projects to improve the world through science did not announce actual discoveries, only promised them.

“The history of the sciences is punctuated with promises and utopias”, says Marc Audétat*. “But the scientific debate – which today is carried out by professional speakers and not the researchers themselves – is at a rather remarkable crossroads in history. On the one hand, there are amazing promises, even dreams, and on the other hand there are more realistic imperatives: finding funding, making work stand out in an ultra-competitive context in order to access more opportunities in an increasingly specialised environment. In this situation, we can be forgiven for questioning the criteria for defining research objectives.”

While the statement may seem a little provocative, the book goes much further than suggesting researchers are merely salespeople. “With the competition between countries and the incredible advances in communication, the politico-scientific ecosystem has become a very

* Marc Audétat, responsable de recherche à l’Interface Sciences - Société UNIL

** Alain Kaufmann, directeur de l’Interface Sciences - Société UNIL

*** Francesco Panese, professeur à l’Institut des sciences sociales UNIL et directeur du Musée de la main UNIL-CHUV

complex machine that some-times works in the same way as speculative bubbles in finance”, says Alain Kaufmann**. Its objective is to attract credits and thereby provoke the supposed competition into contributing to economic growth.

Behind this mechanism lies a sort of cynical complicity. The discourse on promises tries to give credibility to a hypothetical correlation between the guarantee of improvements in the near future on the one hand, and legitimate concerns, expectations and social and economic interests transformed into political promises by decision-makers on the other. The “promises market” sits between scientific and political opportunism. In science, broken promises rarely end up in the moral courts, and even less so in those of reason.”

“With a little hindsight, let’s look at the Human Genome Project launched in 1990, for example”, says Francesco Panese***. Right from the beginning, its objective was not just to sequence all three billion basic pairs of the human genome, but also, and perhaps above all, to identify specific genes linked to the wide range of human pathologies. The project’s stance was built on fairly simple reasoning: by identifying pathogen sequences we would be able to understand the pathological mechanisms, and by controlling their functions we could develop treatments targeting the original cause. This reasoning is not ridiculous, but we cannot ignore the gap between what was promised in the 1990s and the actual results produced 25 years later.

This observation can be applied to many other “promising” projects, including nanotechnology, GMO, and more recently neuroscience. And saying this is not anti-science. On the contrary, it is scientific through and through to observe that the production of promises is often inversely proportional to the scientific strength of prophetic arguments expressed in these ambitious projects. I also believe this yo-yoing between wonder and disappointment that we put the public through, despite the fact they are increasingly affected, is dangerous. We run the risk of provoking not just criticism, which is theoretically a sound reaction, but, above all, rejection. As philosopher Michel Foucault said, what is historically built can be politically destroyed.”

Another recent mascot of this phenomenon is Big Data and its scientific derivative. Thanks to the phenomenal calculating ability of modern computers (without forgetting those in the future), it should soon be possible to discover new, unthought-of correlations between increasing numbers of factors which, at first, seem incomparable. These factors include your DNA, your living environment, your diet and your metabolism when healthy and when ill. We therefore start believing and promising that the algorithms of statistical correlations could replace fundamental research at little cost, putting forward arguments such as the famous Moore’s Law. “Wired magazine got carried away with this promise, and published an article in 2008 under the headline “The End of Science”, says Audétat. “They explained that we would soon be able to do without scientific models, and that many scientists would become irrelevant. Of course, the journalists at the famous magazine have since come back down

"In science, broken promises rarely end up in the moral courts, and even less so in those of reason."

to earth. However, the powerful head of Google, Larry Page, went as far as saying he wanted to change the face of medicine using the algorithmic processing of petabytes of individualised health data stored in the search engine’s immense servers.” According to Panese, this was a new prophecy “in which an author like Eric Topol saw the possibility of a creative destruction of medicine”, which was the title of his best-seller published in 2012.

The authors of Sciences et technologies émergentes: pourquoi tant de promesses? show, however, that another approach is possible. “The terms of citizen science and collaborative research are increasingly considered and implemented,” says Kaufmann. They oppose those who settle for promising a vision of science as more participative and integrated into society. By listening to researches on a daily basis, there is a certain apparent weariness. We might be heading for a division within the research community itself, between those who proclaim and benefit from promises, and those who stand against the poison of false hope.”



Francis Bacon

The Novum Organum (literally, the “New Instrument”) is British philosopher Francis Bacon’s major work, published in 1620. In Novum Organum, Bacon develops a new system of thought for understanding nature, giving experimentation a central role for the benefit of scientific progress. Thanks to this work, Bacon is considered to be the father of modern experimental philosophy.

Moore's law

Moore’s Law, which owes its name to its creator, was put forward in 1965 in Electronics Magazine by the engineer Gordon Moore, one of the men who co-founded the computer giant Intel. Moore observed that the processing power of computer circuits available to the public had doubled every year at a constant cost since 1959 when they were invented. He put forward the hypothesis, soon christened Moore’s Law, that this growth would continue, and even increase exponentially in the future.

Wired: "The End of Science"

In an article published in June 2008, Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson wrote: “Now Google and like-minded companies are shifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age.”