December 7, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A21
Nobel Prize winners are presumed to be intelligent.
But why pay attention to the views of the 100 who have
supported the statement above, issued to coincide with
the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize? Because
one's perception of truth comes not from intelligence
but from a sense of values. Scholarship embodies
values: This was evident to Alfred Nobel, the Swedish
tycoon and explosives manufacturer. In his will, he
stipulated that his prizes recognize idealisk
riktning -- idealistic tendencies.
And what led to the Nobel Prize winners' statement?
Not a sense of oracular wisdom but of obligation.
Individuals who had shared the experience of discovery
would likely be able to agree on a great deal more.
Alfred Nobel was right; science engenders
Why? Because the pursuit of discovery is shot
through with idealism. Discovery originates in the
unsupported belief that the book of creation is open
to being read. So deep is this idealism that many are
willing to devote the best years of their lives to the
quest for discovery, though the odds against success
Idealism must also triumph over the painful fact
that the first to read nature's story may well be
someone other than oneself. But the truth must be
acknowledged whatever the hands that uncover it.
Christian truth cannot be elevated over Muslim truth.
Nor can accepted truth, backed by the massed armies of
orthodoxy, be protected against the claims of upstart
facts. One can trace the sense of "Nobel-esse
oblige" to these idealistic origins.
What, then, do these 100 voices say? The opening
sentence is bold enough to claim that the dominant
forces shaping history are rational. This was
contentious when written in early July, and appeared
still more so following Sept. 11. The ferocity of that
attack led Americans to believe that the attackers
were insane. But it came to be recognized that the
sustained terrorism has its causes and purposes.
The question is important, because what lies (to a
large extent) within the realm of reason can (to a
large extent) be countered by policies grounded in
Of course, the statement is as much about threats
from states as from non-state groups, and about
threats of mass destruction as about conventional
threats. The dominant setting for conflict in each
case, it claims, is a world in which the rich and the
poor live in full sight of one another.
If, in addition, the poor are voiceless, they may
well be induced to speak through violence.
Particularly so if their predicament is aggravated by
the environmental carelessness of the rich.
It is a peculiar folly, under these circumstances,
for the rich to seek greater riches by selling weapons
to the poor. Even without this, the prosperous grow
ever more vulnerable. Advanced societies are complex
and fragile. They operate efficiently by being open,
not guarded. Like any complex mechanism, they are,
therefore, vulnerable to the wrecker's ball.
To avoid a tragic outcome, the statement says, we
shall be forced to do what we should have done
previously. That is to recognize abroad what we have
long recognized domestically: the right of all to
food, shelter, education and freedom of expression.
This is a revolution in thinking that is already under
way. What is lacking, in this country as elsewhere, is
a sense of urgency.
A Chinese leader, asked whether the French
Revolution was a success, reportedly replied that it
was too soon to tell. But it's not too early to
identify its origins: the willful blindness of the
French ruling class of the 18th century. Possessed of
wealth and power, they offered only promises to the
Unless we recognize that the future of each depends
on the good of all, the coming years will bring
escalating conflict. One need not be a rocket
scientist to see that.
But the recognition that science has thrived on
change could persuade us to behave more like rocket
scientists. We might even come to realize that
idealism is the highest form of realism.
Nobel laureate John Polanyi, a University of
Toronto chemistry professor, was involved in framing
the Nobel statement above.