Science - March 5, 2009

MARTIN KROPFF: ‘BELIEFS ARE PRIVATE’

As rector magnificus, Professor Martin Kropff is responsible for research, education and student affairs in Wageningen University. It doesn’t worry him that one third of the staff and students believe that life is the work of a creator. ‘A person’s beliefs about life are private. What it’s all about here is science.’

One third of the students and staff believe that life stems from a creator. Does that shock you?
‘No, those answers don’t mean anything to me, partly because the question is not clear. There are two spheres: that of belief and that of science. What we are concerned with is science. People were not asked what they thought as scientists. We have teachers who are religious but who, in their work, make a clear distinction between their beliefs and scientific explanations.’

There is no scientific basis for the assumption that life was created.
‘That’s true. But science does not yet have a full answer to the question how life did come about. There are still unanswered questions, and that is what makes science such a challenge. We make progress step by step. The most important step was taken by Darwin; after him came Mendel with his laws of heredity; and then came Watson and Crick with the substrate for heredity, found by working out the structure of DNA. We are gaining a better and better understanding of the formation of species, partly through research that we are doing here: Rolf Hoekstra’s genetics chair group is researching the development of fungi under various conditions. Generations last only a few weeks in this sort of organism, which makes it possible to study evolutionary processes.

Wageningen University has a larger than average number of creationists. It is thought that more students and staff come from the Bible belt and other rural areas than at other universities.
‘Our records show that our students come from all parts of the country, and we also of course have a lot of foreign students and staff.’

The advice came out of the round table debate that it would be good to give students more guidance on how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
‘The philosophy of science is very important in an academic education. One and a half years ago, at the request of the student council, we had some research done into how much time is spent on this. It turned out that a lot of attention is paid to it. Right from the first year, we teach students to have an open academic attitude, and teachers include scientific approaches and methods in their courses. PhD researchers are offered solid courses in ethics and philosophy too. Outside the courses, the Studium Generale pays plenty of attention to discussions about science and personal convictions.’

At the same round table debate, plant breeder Herman van Eck expressed his amazement at the non-scientific motives at work in research into organic agriculture.
‘The scientific approach applies in just the same way to organic agriculture, even if, just as with other things, the demand may come from a broader context. But the research must be verifiable and published in peer-reviewed journals – at DLO, in applied research, and at the university. That’s how we go about it in Wageningen. We are a scientific institution, and the methodology must always be sound.’

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