Science and Society: Scientific Values and Ethics

One of the key themes that I like to highlight in our Frontiers of Science course is the interaction between science and society. I usually call this theme “Science and Society (or is it Science vs. Society?)”. Dennis Overbye at the New York times has a nice essay called “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy,” which argues against the view that science is somehow a values-neutral endeavor. It is certainly worth a read:

There are many things worth discussing, but I would like to focus on the basic question that Overbye raises: does science instill values in its practitioners and in the societies that foster it? His argument is essentially that science promotes inquiry, skepticism, honesty, as well as a sort-of egalitarian spirit–it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you are inquisitive enough and rigorous enough in your thinking and methods, you can go far in science.

I partly agree with the piece myself, but I have issues. Let’s start with this excerpt:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

It is true: science is partly a process for trying to find what is “true” about the world–but it is also a body of empirical facts (subject to revision and outright excision) and stories that we tell about how these facts connect up (i.e. theories). On top of scientific theory lies another level of interpretation: the nature of the “truth” that these theories contain. I am more-or-less a realist, and it sounds like Overbye is too. This means that we consider science to actually be uncovering real truth about the world (a funny sort of truth since it is subject to being proved out-and-out false, but rarely if ever able to be proved incontrovertibly 100% correct). But it is important not to lose sight that this “realistic” view of science is an assertion about the nature of the knowledge that science produces that sits on top of the facts and the theories and is not unobjectionable or closed for debate.

But I have already digressed. The point is that science is both process and content. And I think that Overbye is glossing this over by saying that “science is something people do to look for truth.” I think that Einstein was expressing his feeling that learning the facts of science does not truly infuse one with ethical values. And certainly there is something true in the criticisms of science that say that if there are values to extract, they tend toward materialism and some level of amorality. It’s easy to interpret the body of scientific facts as presenting a wholly amoral Nature, that has no shame and no compunction about what we might regard as cruelty.

So one has to be careful: I agree that the process of discovery tends towards democratic sorts of values as Overbye argues. But one could argue that the sorts of people who engage in science tend to already be predisposed to this kind of thinking (mind you, there are all sorts of characters, and some might be quite authoritarian. Some might cling passionately to their pet ideas. Such people can still do great science and be important parts of the community of scientists). If there is a predisposition, the science cannot really instill these values, it can only reinforce them, which is something, but it is not as strong a position as what Overbye asserts.

And that’s focusing on the scientists! Your average person is not exposed to the process of doing science, but rather, mainly to the end results. These end results rarely have a moral, or present a support for an ethical world view. Take evolution: cooperation is “good” insofar as it provides advantages to the organisms that engage in it in some natural context. But where predation, parasitism, sheer brute instinct and ability suffice to allow an organism to survive and procreate, those are just as “good”. There is no natural judgment about the better way to be. And this is what people see of science, by and large. A body of facts, connected perhaps by theories–some beautiful like Natural Selection, some that are patchworks–but the facts are never really connected up by an ethical story–a story with a moral at the end.

So in this sense, science is really values-neutral. And this neutrality has led to dangerous episodes in the past. Take the application of Darwinian-style thinking to society, what is called “Social Darwinism.” This idea is insidious because it is very easy to argue for it based on the science alone. Dismissing social Darwinism as a misapplication of science is not enough, you need to dismiss the notion that what we learn about Nature through science should form the basis for our moral or ethical thinking.

I don’t think that scientific knowledge should be kept 100% separate from ethics. I think that what we learn from doing science can greatly improve how we think about moral questions. But scientific knowledge by itself is an insufficient basis for ethics. I think that deep philosophical thinking about ethics, religious and otherwise, as well as our basic, instinctual humanity, are all important for morally grounding our societies. The scientific process of discovery reinforces, and probably even helps infuse our society with many of the desirable attributes Overbye discusses, but this process itself is grounded in those values, they do not originate from it.


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