José Manuel Sánchez Ron (Madrid, 1949) is one of the essayists who have done the most in Spain for the dissemination of science. A physicist by training, he received his doctorate in London, obtained a position as a full professor of Theoretical Physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid and later the chair of History of Science. He has worked in the Higher Council for Scientific Research, has given courses and conferences in numerous foreign universities, is vice-director of the Royal Spanish Academy, member of the Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences and of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, as well as from the Académie International d’Histoire des Sciences. He is the author of an extensive essay work. The last of his books, ‘The country of lost dreams’ (Ed. Taurus), is a volume of more than 1,150 pages in which reviews the history of science that was made in Spain over thirteen centuries.
– What have you thought when you have heard politicians accuse themselves of ‘hiding behind science’ in the middle of the pandemic?
– Disbelief. This government, like the previous one and so many others, has failed or has not fulfilled its commitments to science. I will only remind you of one thing: in this pandemic there have been groups of scientists who have asked for an independent report on how it has been managed and it has not been done. Not to mention the predictions of Fernando Simón, whose goodwill I do not doubt, but who has failed so many times.
– Politics always comes before science?
– Rigor and accuracy have been conspicuous by their absence in political decisions. To give you an example, the people who attended the March 8 demonstrations were not traced, but it was said that there had been no consequences for infections.
– In your last book, you have written that Spain was concerned with applied science in the 16th century, especially in relation to navigation, but then it was left out of the scientific revolutions. Was Spain powerful then just for supporting science?
– He needed her, at least for the part related to the training of sailors to get to America. This resulted in the creation of institutions and chairs in those years. In America, moreover, opportunities arose because there was a new reality that had to be known, without forgetting that the existence of so many precious metals made it necessary to improve mining, chemistry, etc.
– Why then walked away from all that?
– On the one hand because the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, with Newton and Kepler, for example, goes beyond applied science to delve into the laws of nature and we do not enter that. And on the other, because our contributions, which are given, are in Botany, Zoology -all this on account of the investigation in the new territories-, sciences that do not lead to the steam engine and other advances, which will be crucial.
– Let’s go back to the present. Do the Spanish, central and regional governments have scientists? Because in expert committees there are usually more politicians and positions of trust than experts.
– In many countries there is a long tradition for parliaments to have scientific advisers. Here, as far as I know, there aren’t. And most politicians have no scientific training either. I know that the Minister of Science has it, but I suspect that he is not there because of that, but because of the fame derived from being an astronaut, regardless of the fact that he did not have management experience either. It is a sign of the government’s lack of interest in science.
Scientists in the media
– We are a country of services and that is very relevant in this regard, you often say.
– So is. In any political debate, in any electoral program, it will be heard or read that it is necessary to increase investment in R + D + i, but then it is not done. And it is a source of wealth, it seems that we ignore it. We will pay for a long time not to have made those investments.
– Until the pandemic, it was more common to see charlatans in the media and, especially in social networks, than scientists. Do they enjoy or have they had more opportunities to express themselves?
– It is a problem derived from how culture is understood here. It seems that science is alien to culture. For this reason, when the weight of Latin or Philosophy is reduced in the study plans, voices are raised against it, but hardly any complaints are heard about what is happening with Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry … And without those knowledge we are not going anywhere.
– At least now scientists do appear more in the media.
– It has been a positive effect of the pandemic: they have been given more voice, at least those in the biomedical field. Hopefully when this happens they will not disappear from the media and that this presence will be extended to other branches. Because the newspapers have greatly improved the coverage of these issues, but on public TV science issues are scarce and often appear in early morning programs.
– To what extent are there scientists who do not come out to criticize politicians when they say baseless things because it is those politicians who must approve investments for their institutes and teams and do not want to antagonize them?
– I do not know if that is why, but it is true that few scientists come to the fore, writing opinion articles on current affairs, for example. I’ve done it before; now less, partly out of discouragement. There is a responsibility of scientists, who only speak to ask for more resources. In this, as in what we talked about in the previous question, they also have their responsibility.
– Laughing thanks to flat Earthers and other deniers has paved the way for now there are those who say in all seriousness that the virus does not exist and people do not die from Covid 19 and therefore do not wear a mask?
– A possible explanation is that in Humanity there are good and intelligent people, but there is another important part that is subject to all kinds of ignorance. Look what has happened in the United States, with 70 million people voting for a president who denies almost everything. And then there is the effect of technologies.
– In what sense?
– In which they give the opportunity to spread hoaxes to the worst part of society. Postmodernism is that my truth is as good as yours. With a very limited training, there is a great breeding ground for all that. We believed that the world would be more cultured with the technological means achieved, but it is not happening.
– Because the most irrational part of society is more active when it comes to spreading their ideas. There are those who want to gain notoriety through their opinions and how popularity – and the money it carries – is a rising value …
– Those deniers often rely on science changing its conclusions. Is the problem that scientists are forced to give hasty opinions or that the workings of science are unknown?
– If you were well educated in scientific matters, you would know that nothing, or little, of the existing knowledge is definitive. The way of seeing certain phenomena changes as more things are known.
– There are also those who show their distrust by the fact that until the arrival of vaccines the way to deal with the virus was the same as against the Spanish flu: stay at home.
– One of the things to be taught is that science does not have solutions for everything and shows that there is a limit. That this pandemic could occur was already known, it is in the books. But from there, it is a miracle that we have vaccines in less than a year, when some of the best known for other diseases took thirty or more years to get. We live in a society of rights and not of duties, as Sartori says. Science cannot solve unlimited energy consumption or all health problems.
– Another worrying matter. Biology can improve the fight against many diseases and lengthen human life, but it can also open another gap between the rich (countries, people) who can afford it and those who cannot.
– The gap between rich and poor is immense and inequalities increase with the development of our scientific and technological possibilities. Biomedicine can continue to increase it, of course. The only hope is that technological developments are getting cheaper. I trust that the possibility of intervening in the genome, which is already within reach, is not so discriminatory. But it is true that it opens a debate because we live in a culture that seeks to experience everything.
– Everything and as soon as possible.
– I would not like to appear in this interview as the bearer of traditional values, because it is not like that. But exploring everything just because it is possible seems outrageous to me, and in this field it would lead us to enter the terrain of human nature. The funny thing is that we have wonderful possibilities to live better and longer, and we don’t use them too much.
– Einstein is credited with saying that there are only two infinite things, the Universe and human stupidity, but he was not entirely sure of the former. Do you share your opinion?
– I don’t know if Einstein said it, but I would add selfishness among the infinite things. We live in a time of change and those times always generate areas where confusion reigns. The question is whether we will be able to overcome it with some important guidelines and values. In the French Revolution, which even had its stages of terror, positive values were generated that today are the basis of democracies. Will we now be capable of something like this, when inequalities grow and the truth does not prevail, but ‘fake news’?