Morton on Muller-Hill and Johnson

Paul A. Nelson (
Mon, 17 Mar 1997 09:05:20 -0600 (CST)

In his zeal to correct Phillip Johnson, Glenn Morton has overstepped the
bounds of careful scholarship. The account Phil cited, from an article by the
distinguished German molecular biologist Benno Muller-Hill, was published
under the title "Science, Truth, and Other Values," in _The Quarterly Review
of Biology_ 68 (1993):399-407. This article, based on a talk delivered at the
European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg (1 July 1992), is an
impassioned plea by Muller-Hill for honesty and introspection in science.

He begins with this episode:

When I was a student in a German gymnasium and thirteen years old,
I learned a lesson that I have not forgotten. We read the Odyssey
in ancient Greek, but we also took physics. One early morning our
physics teacher placed a telescope in the school yard to show us a
certain planet and its moons. So we stood in a long line, about
forty of us. I was standing at the end of the line, since I was
one of the smallest students. The teacher asked the first student
whether he could see the planet. No, he had difficulties, because
he was nearsighted. The teacher showed him how to adjust the
focus, and that student could finally see the planet and its
moons. Others had no difficulty; they saw them right away. The
students, after a while, what they were supposed to see. Then the
student standing just before me -- his name was Harter --
announced that he could not see anything. "You idiot," shouted
the teacher, "you have to adjust the lenses." The student did
that and said after a while, "I do not see anything, it is all
black." The teacher then looked through the telescope himself.
After some seconds he looked up with a strange expression on his
face. And then my comrades and I also saw that the telescope was
nonfunctioning: It was closed by a cover over the lens. Indeed,
no one could see anything through it. (p. 400)

I would like to ask Glenn how he knows that this account is not true. By openly
implying as much in his post to this list, without evidence, he has slandered
both Benno Muller-Hill and Phil Johnson.

Furthermore, I would encourage Glenn to consult the original article, as, it
seems, he has not done. While Muller-Hill clearly loves science (writing, in
his opening sentence, "To understand how nature works provides deep pleasure,
and to understand a beautiful detail that nobody else has ever understood
provides ecstasy"), he also has no illusions about the all-too-human element
in scientific reasoning.

Consider for instance this passage, which follows immediately the story about
the telescope:

You have to get older, perhaps as old as I am, to see that self-
deception plays an astonishing role in science in spite of all the
scientists' worship of truth. In my research, I was confronted
for the first time with this phenomenon when I was a graduate
student working with Kurt Wallenfels in the Department of
Chemistry of Freiburg University. There was an Indian postdoc in
the group, O.P. Malhotra, who had discovered a most interesting
phenomenon in E. coli. The number of active sites of beta-
galactosidase increases with temperature! At 20 degrees C there
were only 4, but at 35 degrees C there were 8 active binding
sites! Similarily the number of essential -SH groups increased from
4 to 8 under these conditions. I found this discovery most
interesting, and began to do more experiments to see whether there
was a gradual or sudden change with temperature. I found first
that the binding site experiments were misinterpreted....Then I
showed that the number of active -SH groups were incorrectly
determined. The post-doc had already returned to India to
continue his career. The manuscript in which the phenomenon was
described was retracted. I had to delete the relevant parts on
the galleys of an article the postdoc had written with Kurt
Wallenfels for _Advances of Carbohydrate Chemistry_ (Wallenfels
and Malhotra, 1961). I felt then the immense pleasure of
"falsification," which according to Karl Popper is the best
touchstone you can possibly apply in science. But no paper
carrying my name was ever published to describe what I had
discovered. (pp. 400-401)

Muller-Hill concludes his article with a warning to scientists about
overweening pride, in particular, in relation to research involving human
subjects. (He has written a book on the misuse of genetics by the Nazis.)
He writes:

...I know pretty well that very few scientists read the Old
Testament and know the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law.
Therefore the question has to be raised as to what can be said to
them. I know that to say "Read the Old Testament" or "Respect the
commandments" will result in laughter. So I have to retreat to my
last line of defense and say: Listen carefully to your conscience!
It is a voice that sometimes says NO. It never says YES, as
Socrates has already remarked. This NO is the only brake when all
other brakes are gone. This voice can be silenced. Do not
silence it. It comes forth from some unknown structure of the
human brain. It comes before religion and it grows with true
religion. Enjoy the beauty and pleasures of science and follow
the voice of your conscience. That is all I have to say. (p. 406)

I find this advice entirely commendable.

Paul Nelson
Editor, _Origins & Design_
600 Davis Street
Third Floor West
Evanston, IL 60201-4419