Monday, December 17, 2012


Do you remember when scientists were, as a class, inclined toward intellectual modesty, restricting their public statements to observations, and sometimes speculations, on the natural world which were supported by evidence or at the very least mathematics?  How, then, did some of them come to be treated, in a line which runs at least from Einstein to Dawkins, as experts on things foreign to their expertise -- ethics for the physicist, religion for the geneticist?

If time permits, please read this essay by biologist Austin L. Hughes, in The New Atlantis.  Hughes is concerned to critique "scientism," the idea that natural science is able to replace the traditional work of philosophers in epistemology and ethics.  Although he writes much of Dawkins and Sam Harris, his real concern seems to be with the positivist school of philosophy, which made and makes dubious claims for the power of science, often in ignorance of the scientific method or its results.

Hughes has read widely, and thought deeply about the overreach of his colleagues, as well as what he calls "the abdication of the philosophers." The essay is a gem; here are a few of our favorite bits.

Defending Popper's definition of "science" as a method characterized by falsifiable claims about the natural world, Hughes says:

We have seen in recent years a growing tendency to treat as “scientific” anything that scientists say or believe. The debates over stem cell research, for example, have often been described, both within the scientific community and in the mass media, as clashes between science and religion. It is true that many, but by no means all, of the most vocal defenders of embryonic stem cell research were scientists, and that many, but by no means all, of its most vocal opponents were religious. 
But in fact, there was little science being disputed: the central controversy was between two opposing views on a particular ethical dilemma, neither of which was inherently more scientific than the other. If we confine our definition of the scientific to the falsifiable, we clearly will not conclude that a particular ethical view is dictated by science just because it is the view of a substantial number of scientists. 
The same logic applies to the judgments of scientists on political, aesthetic, or other nonscientific issues. If a poll shows that a large majority of scientists prefers neutral colors in bathrooms, for example, it does not follow that this preference is “scientific.”

Arguing against another, quite circular, understanding of "science" as any enterprise supported by "scientific" institutions Hughes makes several excellent observations.  He reminds us that the studies supported by the Soviet institutions, for example, produced readily falsifiable results.  In response to the proposal that science is self-correcting, and that its progress, while spasmodic is is always forward, he suggests that his own decades of professional experience do not support this, and warns against overconfidence.  He sums up much of the problem thus:

The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. 
Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett [who propose this definition] explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families ... are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.” 
This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.
As Bugs Bunny used to say, "Why, I resemble that remark."  But in fact, Hughes is here suggesting the sobering possibility that some scientists -- a smallish number, to be sure -- have claimed for themselves a place as arbiters of truth and makers of policy which is not, in the modern world, even accorded to priests or kings.

1 comment:

Mark C. Christianson said...

The first quote from Hughes' essay strikes me as a rather odd statement. That there is little science being disputed has nothing to do with the claim that the debate over stem cell research might be characterized as a clash between science and religion. The dispute is an ethical one, to be sure. But, that too, has nothing to do with that characterization. The problem is that the characterization is something of a shorthand one, either understood or made without sufficient carefulness. It might be better characterized as a question of whether the pursuit of science must be governed by religious mores (even when not universally held) or be allowed to investigate any knowledge of the world. The claim that this is an ethical question not a scientific one is correct, but certainly question of the ethics of science are matters that scientists should be something we should hope scientists do indeed tackle and bring to bear their own expertise and knowledge. If they didn't do this, we'd have much more serious issues than some who at least act as if their scientific training and vocation makes them credible on a whole host of topics outside of the realm of science.