An Analysis Of J. Michael Bishop

’s “Enemies Of Promise” Essay, Research Paper

An Analysis of J. Michael Bishop’s

“Enemies of Promise”


I. Prologue: A War of Ideologies

II. The Antagonists: Zealots, Ignorants, and Other Assorted Annoyances

III. The Battles: The Result of Ignorance and Fear

IV. The Fallout: The Wake of Conflict

V. Ceasefire: Imminent or Impossible?

VI. Summary

Appendix A: Supplementary Information

Appendix B:

I. Prologue: A War of Ideologies

In the summer of 1995, the periodical Wilson Quarterly published “Enemies of Promise,” an essay by J. Michael Bishop, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of microbiology from the University of California, San Francisco. The essay addressed the renewed criticism the scientific community has received in recent years by an ignorant and unduly critical public. The overall effect this single work has had on the world may be nominal, but the points Professor Bishop raises are significant, and provide ammunition against the ignorants who maintain this “intellectual war,” centuries after it was sparked.

II. The Antagonists

One of the most visible critics of science today, and the progenitor of the anti-science sentiment is the religious community, specifically the conservative Christians. One can hardly read the newspaper without reading of one religious figurehead or another preaching on the “fallacy of science,” pushing their own brand of “truth” on whoever would hear them. As Bishop writes “It is discouraging to think than more than a century after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), and seventy years after the Scopes trial dramatized the issue, the same battles must still be fought.”(256) And the loudest rallying cries to these battles can be heard issuing from the throats of the ranks of zealots and their hordes of followers.

Other, more surreptitious opponents of science abound as well. Ironically, one such antagonist originates from within academia itself: the postmodernists. Of this group, Bishop writes: “According to these “postmodernists,” the supposedly objective truths of science are in reality all “socially constructed fictions,” no more than “useful myths,” and science itself is “politics by other means.”(256) Bishop’s dismissal of these ideas as “arrant nonsense”(256) is entirely appropriate; frequently postmodernists’ attacks on science are utterly ridiculous, and in his essay, Bishop demonstrates this clearly.

The third serious, and perhaps the most grievous opposition to science can be found in a more mundane source: the general public. Bishop recognizes that the general population does not have the benefit of higher education, and thus scientific ignorance, indeed ignorance in general, is rampant. People fear what they do not understand, and an instinctual reaction to fear is aggression. Ignorance, fear, and aggression make for a volatile combination, and it is from these darker elements of human nature that some of history’s most heinous atrocities have sprung.

II. The Attacks: Ideological Ammunition and The Danger of Ignorance

The advancement of science and technology has inarguably enhanced the existence mankind. While it is true that such advancement has come at a price, for most, the end justifies the means. It is likely very few people would give up the “modern conveniences” that make their lives easier, much less the necessities such as medicine, and readily available food that make their lives possible. Despite this, there is a segment of the population who increasingly distrusts and fears the scientific community, their suspicion begot of ignorance and, in some cases, sheer stupidity.

Perhaps one of the first historical examples of the widespread rejection science is the events surrounding Galileo and his discoveries that lent credence Copernicus’s theory of the Sun being the center of the universe, not the Earth. The initial resistance to this research was from his fellow professors of the University of Padua, specifically those in the philosophy department. It was not until a Pisan professor asserted that belief in a moving Earth was heretical that the Church involved itself. Ultimately, The Father of Modern Astronomy was branded a heretic by the Inquisition in 1633 and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Fortunately for J. Michael Bishop the disdain for science that so plagued Galileo’s time has lessened but, although it may be of a lesser magnitude than poor Galileo’s case, it seems history does indeed repeat itself.

The philosophy professors that first ridiculed Galileo have found successors in the contemporary postmodernists. Though the subject matter may be more complex, the response to it is alarmingly similar. In his essay, Bishop cites several prominent scholars who have, as he writes, “joined in the chorus of criticism and doubt.”(257) As he points out in his examples, the scholars’ arguments and commentaries on modern science are utterly ridiculous. Another shining example of this lunacy can be observed in a published conversation between Dr. Shinnichi Hisamatsu and Dr. Ryoji Watanabe, both well-known proponents of the postmodernist ideology:

“?Science has developed by itself, and has separated itself, for instance from ethics. It has become completely unrelated to the latter. Now that it has become unrelated, science has come to go on all by itself, neglecting ethics.” (Hisamatsu)

This statement, of course, is sheer idiocy. The news today abounds with examples of the scientific community questioning and examining it’s own ethics. For example, in July of 1999, a board of genetic researchers in New Zealand approved proposal to attempt the cloning of Huia, a specie of bird that was wiped out in the 1920’s by the overwhelming demand of their long, white-tipped black feathers by a passing fashion fad in England (CNN). This is “neglecting ethics?” If anything, this is an example of exemplary morality; man making an attempt at correcting a terrible wrong it committed in the past now that he has the means to do so, for no other reason than that is the right thing to do., In the same vein is the consensus by the international scientific community to ban the attempt of cloning humans, without the proposal first being reviewed in a long, arduous process, but a very large and diverse board. With stories like this making the front page of The New York Times for example, stating that scientific knowledge and morality are mutually exclusive is simply stupid. Although this is only a single example, many of the postmodernist’s arguments are equally flimsy as “Enemies of Promise” illustrates.

A similar stalwart stance has been taken by religious groups such as the (in)famous Christian Coalition. A well-known issue science and religion love to fight about is the “evolution vs. creation” matter. This battle has been raging since the day of Charles Darwin, and in modern day few have renounced the existence more fervently than the Christian Coalition. Science has yet to conclusively prove that evolution is indeed responsible for life on Earth, but it has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that evolution does indeed exist. The cold, hard facts are there yet, officially, the CC does not recognize the concept of evolution as being valid to any degree.(CC) This is completely irrational, especially if one considers that the Vatican itself has officially recognized that natural selection does happen, though, according to them, it does not take precedence over the divine in the question of our origins.(NY Times) The folly of this, and other such religious institutions in their opposition to science in regards to other issues besides this is wide-ranging, and well documented.

The terms “postmodernism” and “Christianity” are not synonymous, although they do share similarities in their opposition to the scientific community. Generally speaking, the arguments of both schools of thought are flimsy at best, relying on nothing more than glorified superstition and “fuzzy logic” to explain the workings of the universe. It is amusing to note that, despite the fact that these two groups share a common enemy, they frequently dismiss one another as being wholly inaccurate, irrational, or idiotic? sometimes all of the above. In the short essay Truth Telling to a Truth-denying Generation by well-known Christian author and broadcaster and Kirby Anderson, the most common sentiment of the conservative Christian community about the postmodernists is summed up quite nicely:

“Postmodernism rests on the shaky foundation of relativism. It rejects the notion of absolute truth, arguing that there is no Truth, except the personal “truth” that each person finds for himself. Christians should never minimize the importance the Bible places on Truth. Our faith rests in a real and truthful God?This is the truth we must proclaim to a truth-denying generation.” (Anderson)

Often the postmodernists’ rebuttal to such a statement is very similar to the sentiments that the scientific community has about the religious groups; that is that they rely on glorified superstition and mysticism to explain the workings of the universe, an entirely irrational and illogical answer to this, or any question.

The third and final source of opposition that Bishop addresses in his paper is the public. The ignorance that can be found in the previous two antagonists in this “conflict” pales in comparison the intellectual deficiency that plagues the general public. Although the intellectual sophistication of the average person has increased exponentially since Galileo’s day, and ignorance of science leaves the masses vulnerable to manipulation by any who would desire to do so. The news media, advertisers, governments, and politicians are just a few examples of the groups that exploit this vulnerability every day. Being impressionable, the public does not necessarily require an outside source to manipulate their ideas, but can, and often does, make irrational assumptions on it’s own. An amusing example of this is given by Bishop in his account of the University of California, San Francisco (his employer), and it’s legal battle for the right to conduct biomedical research in a residential area:

“The opponents were our neighbors, who argued that we were dangerous beyond tolerance; that we exude toxic wastes, infectious pathogens; that we put at risk the lives and limbs of all who come within reach-our own lives and limbs included, I suppose, a nuance that seems lost on the opposition. One agitated citizen suggested in a public forum that the manipulation if recombinant DNA at the university had engendered the AIDS virus; another declared on television her outrage that ‘those people are bringing DNA into my neighborhood.’” (260)

As Bishop comments in a similar section of his essay, “We may be amused by these examples; we should also be troubled.”(261) But apparently we are not troubled enough. Citing “recent international testing,”(260) Bishop asserts the US’s high schools’ deficiency in teaching the sciences; of the top twelve nations, we rank ninth in physics, eleventh in chemistry and “dead last”(260) in biology. Indeed, statistics such as this are alarming, and they provide an indication as to the origins of the “education gap” that so separates the average citizen from the scientist. Of all possible reasons for the disdain for science and those who would seek to master it, perhaps Mr. Bishop explains it best; “Resistance to science is born of fear. Fear, in turn, is bred by ignorance. And it is ignorance that is our deepest malady.”(260)


So what is the result from this malady that Bishops speaks of, and the resistance to scientific advancement that the afflicted demonstrate? In Enemies of Promise, Bishop discusses at length the unrealistic expectations that have been placed on the scientific community by a public who doesn’t understand that “success in science can not be dictated.”(258) That is to say, for example, the uninformed see the great successes of science, and assume that such successes can be recreated on demand. As Bishop points out, “When scientists fail to meet unrealistic expectations, they are condemned by critics who do not recognize the limits of science.”(259) Using AIDS activist Larry Kramer’s criticism of the National Institutes of Health (who essentially claims the NIH actively discourages research progress) as an example, this is plainly illustrated.

Another source of the public’s unrealistic expectations may lie in that they only see the successful results of research without being privy to the details of the hard work and failures that made those results possible. Everybody remembers when Dolly, the first successfully cloned sheep became a celebrity. What an amazing feat it was that science had discovered how to simply “grow” an organism as complex as a sheep “from scratch.” Since the cloning of a sheep was such a simple task, surely such things as cloned spinal cords for paralysis victims and new limbs for amputees, new eyes for the blind and et cetera must be just around the corner, right?

What the average person does not know is that the research that ultimately produced Dolly was started years before, entailing many thousands of man hours and enormous expenditure of resources. They also do not realize that Dolly was not the only cloned sheep produced by this project, but simply the only cloned sheep that survived; over fifteen other animals were produced, but each specimen developed conditions that ended their life very early on. Lastly, the average person does not realize that Dolly was not created by “cloning” in the technical sense; that is, by simply taking a DNA sample from a progenitor and “assembling” a new organism “from scratch.” Rather, she was the product of the manipulation of an ovum that was eventually allowed to grow normally after the initial “tinkering” with it’s DNA had taken place.(Wolski) So, if the average person understood all these elements, they would realize that “growing” replacement organs, while smaller and less complex than an entire organism, is an even more insurmountable task than cloning a sheep.

Besides making for undue criticism, misunderstandings like this can actually lead to the hindrance of research that could possibly produce the fantastic results the public so fervently desires. In his writing, Bishop tells of an exchange a colleuge had with the National Science Foundation after it had given this colleuge a grant for a research project;

“‘After the first year, I wrote that things had not worked out very well-had tried this, than, and the other thing, and nothing had really happened. [The foundation] wrote back, saying, ‘Don’t worry about it-that is the way research goes sometimes. Maybe next year you will have better luck.’” (258)

Unfortunately, even if a scientist wrote a letter like this, they would most certainly not such a reply. Generally, when government-funded research projects fail to produce results immediately, they are quickly axed because the lawmakers and administrators of our government (who are ultimately controlled by the people) are loathe to “waste” money on a project unless it is producing tangible results. Because of this, it is not inconceivable that many a researcher has been on the verge of a breakthrough when his funding was cut and his project shut down, wasting any previous work that may have brought the researchers close to answering whatever problem it was they were working on.

Yet another issue that arises from misconstruing the role and the abilities of science is that the scientific community can get blamed for, or saddled with problems that are out of their domain. Case in point: According to Mr. Bishop, former governor of Colorado Richard Lamm had claimed he no longer felt that biomedical research contributed to the improvement of human health which, as Bishop writes, is “a truly astonishing stance.”(257) To justify his position, Lamm criticized the University of Colorado for doing “little or nothing”(Bishop 257) to remedy such problems as addictions and dietary excesses, the lack of primary care for the uninsured, and the degree of violence in society. Mr. Lamm, with this stance, has shown himself to be hypocritical, ignorant and a complete fool. Problems such as those he addressed are not to be solved by research scientists, but by legislators and insurance companies! Lamm is blaming the scientific community for a problem that should have been his job to remedy, a problem he obviously failed at.

It would appear that miscommunication between layman and scientist, and the failure of the education system to fulfill it’s obligations lie at the root of the problem.

IV. Ceasefire: Imminent or Impossible?

Having identified the problem, and the basic causes for it, remedying the situation should be a simple matter, right? Perhaps not. The lack of science education in public schools is in itself a problem that is not simple to remedy. Many issues contribute to the failing of the public education system today; lack of funding, lack of teachers, a growing tolerance for mediocrity, and irresponsible allocation of resources to name a few. Additional elements contribute to the overall problem, and each one of those elements has it’s own host of problems barring it’s resolution.

Despite the difficulties involved in ending this “war” between science and “everybody else,” there are steps that can be taken to set events in motion that might one day lead to a satisfactory resolution. In closing his essay, Michael Bishop blames science for neglecting this issue, but also the common man who Bishop says (quoting renowned physicist and historian Gerald Holton), “‘?does not know the basic facts that determine their very existence, functioning and surroundings [and is] living in a dream world?’”(261) Closing his paper with words that are ominous and undeniably true, Bishop seems to offer something of an ultimatum to all those who would turn away from science;

“The enterprise of science embodies a great adventure: the quest for understanding in a universe that mathematician Freeman Dyson once characterized as ‘infinite in all directions, not only above us in the large, but also below us in the small.’ We of science have begun the quest well, by building a method of ever-increasing power, an method that can illuminate all that is in the natural world. In consequence, we are admired but also feared, mistrusted, even despised. We offer hope for the future but also moral conflict and ambiguous choice. The price of science seems large, but to reject science is to deny the future.” (261)

V. Summary

In Enemies of Promise, J. Michael Bishop addresses a scientific community he says has alienated itself from the common man, thus bringing upon itself criticism and inspiring distrust and fear from society. Although Bishop makes no excuses for the shortcomings of science and academia, he delivers an ominous message to those who would attack the scientific community: Science is the future. Learn to embrace it or be left behind.

Appendix A: Supplementary Information

The Huia bird.


Appendix B: Works Cited

Anderson, Kirby. “Truth Telling to a Truth-denying Generation” Dallas/Ft. Worth Heritage, The (11-09-99).

Bishop, J. Michael. “Enemies Of Promise” The Presence Of Others Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford, John J. Ruszkiewicz New York: St. Martin’s, 1997 255-263.

Truth About Creation, The Christian Coalition, The Religious information pamphlet.

New York: Christian’s, 1996.

“Cloning Of Extinct Hiua Bird Approved” July 20, 1999


Hisamatsu, Shinichi “Hisamatsu Shinichi on postmodernism” April 18, 1999


(title unknown) New York Times, The c.October, 1999.


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