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On the Morality of Science


Ernest Partridge
The Crisis Papers.

May 1, 2007
 


Why do the Busheviks hate science? Scientists insist upon presenting evidence and proven facts, regardless of what the Busheviks would prefer to hear. And so, for Bush's team, political dogma, special interests and public relations trump science.  For example, when, in October 2002, an alarming draft summary of research in climate change arrived at the White House, staffer Phillip Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute with no scientific training, "revised" the report, deleting whole paragraphs and adding qualifications and doubts nowhere expressed by the scientific authors of the draft.

This is common practice in Bush's White House, which routinely interferes with, alters, and even suppresses scientific reports from the FDA, the EPA, NOAA, and other federal agencies. Scientists, it seems, belong to the detested "reality-based community." Rather than heed the scientists, the Busheviks prefer to "create [their] own realities." (Ron Suskind: "Without a Doubt," The New York Times).

Nevertheless, science provides the most accurate and reliable account of nature, and nature is indifferent to political dogmas and agendas. As Richard Feynmann concluded in his dissenting opinion in the Challenger Commission Report: "... reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature can not be fooled."

Science is accurate, reliable and enduring because it is, at its foundation, a highly moral enterprise -- a claim that might surprise many, including scientists.

"Scientific morality" is widely regarded as an oxymoron, since it is commonly believed that science is "value neutral." This belief embraces a pernicious half-truth. The logic of science stipulates that the data, laws, hypotheses and theories of science exclude evaluative terms and concepts, and that the vocabulary of science be exclusively empirical and formal. There are no "oughts," no "goods and bads," no "rights and wrongs." (The fact that social sciences deal with values descriptively, is only an apparent violation of this rule). Capitalist and communist missiles are subject to the same laws of trajectory. The same laws of physiology apply to the physician who heals, and the murderer who poisons. The "value-free" status of scientific vocabulary and assertion is the "truthful half" of the belief that science is "value free."

But as an activity, science is steeped in evaluation, for the methodology that yields these "value-free" statements, requires a discipline and a commitment that to merits the name of "morality." Thus the advancement of science is characterized by behavior that can only be described as "virtuous," and the corruption of science as moral weakness. In other words, the activity of science (that is to say, of science as a human institution) is highly involved with values.

Consider an example: When Gregor Mendel published his studies of the genetic properties of sweet peas, he gave a scrupulously factual account. Moreover, his failures and unanswered questions were reported alongside his verified hypotheses. Had Mendel not been impeccably honest, humble and open with his work, his reports thereof would have been, scientifically speaking, far less valuable. In short, the moral quality of the researcher gave explicit (non-moral) value to his findings. Yet Mendel's scientific papers themselves have not a bit of moral evaluation within them: no prescriptions, no exhortations, no "shoulds" or "oughts" -- only the straightforward exposition of observations and hypotheses. The accounts were value-free; but the conditions required to produce these documents and to give them scientific importance were profoundly moral. In contrast, consider the fraudulent Soviet agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, who displayed neither honesty, candor, tolerance or modesty. Because of these very failings, his work was scientifically worthless. Once more: the primary findings of science, and the language that reports it, are value free, but the conditions that permit scientific work and the attitudes of the scientists toward their work, are deeply involved in morality.

In his little book, Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski gives a masterful presentation of the moral preconditions of science. The fundamental moral premise, says Bronowski, is "the habit of truth": the collective decision by the body of science that "We ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so." This habit, this decision, gives a moral tone to the entire scientific enterprise. Bronowski continues:

By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are of course oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims, they do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any cost, they appeal neither to prejudice or to authority, they are often frank about their ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of science. Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. . . But in a world in which state and dogma seem always either to threaten or to cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks this rule, as Lysenko has done, is ignored. . .

The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.

And this is but the beginning. For if truth claims are to be freely tested by the community of scientists, then this community must encourage and protect independence and originality, and it must tolerate dissent.

Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding the discipline and morality of science.

Persuasion, a psychological activity, is the arena in which propagandists, advertisers, politicians and preachers perform their stunts. To the "persuader," the "conclusion" (i.e. what he is trying to get others to believe: "the message," "the gospel," "the sale") is not open to question. His task is to find the means to get the persuadee (i.e., voter, buyer, "sucker") to believe the message. Whatever psychological means accomplishes this goal is fair game. When the "persuader" and the "persuadee" are one and the same, this is called "rationalization".

Demonstration (or "argumentation" or "proof"), a logical activity, is the objective of the scholar and scientist. Therein, hard evidence and valid methodology is sought, and the conclusion is unknown or in doubt. However discomforting the resulting conclusions might be, "demonstration" has evolved as the best "proven" means of arriving at the truth -- or more precisely, at whatever assurance of truth the evidence will allow. "Demonstration" is exemplified in scientific method (in particular, through freedom of inquiry, replicability of experimentation, publicly attainable data, etc.), in legal rules of evidence, and in the rules of inference of formal logic.

A scientist or a scholar is an individual who has determined, as much as humanly possible, to be (psychologically) persuaded only by (logical) demonstration.

The temptation to resort to persuasion to the detriment of demonstration is universal in mankind and conspicuous among political regressives (who call themselves "conservatives").  But the ability to resist this temptation is variable. Thus science has been devised to ensure the highest humanly attainable degree of non-subjective demonstration. (See my "Is Science Just Another Dogma?"). Much of the strength and endurance of science derives from in its social nature, and the severe sanctions that are entailed therein. Thus the scientist who claims a discovery must tell his colleagues how he arrived at his knowledge, and then offer it for independent validation, at any suitable time and place, by his peers. If this validation fails, the "discovery" is determined to be bogus. If the failure is due to carelessness, the investigator is subject to ridicule. (This was apparently the case with Fleishman and Pons' claim to have discovered "cold fusion.") If it is due to fraud (i.e., "cooking the data"), as was the case with Lysenko and Dawson (the "discoverer" of Piltdown Man), the investigator is liable to be exposed, whereupon the scientist loses his reputation and credibility -- which is to say, his profession. Due to its social nature, the institution of scientific inquiry is more than the sum of all scientists that participate therein.

To reiterate: the activity of science fosters such moral virtues as tolerance, mutual respect, discipline, modesty, impartiality, non-manipulation, and, above all, what Bronowski calls "the habit of truth." That is to say, in the pursuit of his or her profession, the scientist forgoes "easy" gratification through a steadfast allegiance to "truth," and the implicit willingness to acknowledge a failure to find the truth -- both of these, abstract moral principles. The scientist endures such morally virtuous sacrifice and constraint, because the discipline requires it, and the cost of violation is severe: lying and cheating in the laboratory are fruitless iniquities, since, by the nature of the enterprise, they are likely to be uncovered.

Yet, to be sure, scientists are capable of morally atrocious behavior. They performed experiments at Auschwitz, and they serve today as psychologists perfecting torture techniques at Gitmo, as apologists for the tobacco and pesticide industries, and some, lavishly funded by the coal and oil industries, deny the existence of global warming.

Scientists are human, and thus vulnerable to all the usual temptations which flesh is heir to.

Still, for the scientist and scholar who chooses to pursue a moral life, the insight and discipline acquired from scientific training and practice offers a significant "boost" to that pursuit.

The "virtues of science" can even lead to saintly behavior. Consider the case of the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1975. Without question, Sakharov carried his allegiance to truth, and the habit of yielding to principle, beyond his laboratory. In this passage from his great 1968 testament, "Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," note how the extension of scientific method to politics and social activism, conveys essential moral qualities and implications:

We regard as 'scientific' a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussion and conclusions. The complexity and diversity of all the phenomena of modern life, the great possibilities and dangers linked with the scientific-technical revolution and with a number of social tendencies demand precisely such an approach...

Out of his respect for the truth and the institution of scientific inquiry, Sakharov would never hide evidence, whatever the apparent personal advantage. By analogy, in his political dissenting he would not compromise a moral truth, even to save himself. When duty called, that was reason enough. It is this step, from the laboratory to practical life, that characterizes the saintly scientist. Saintly behavior is manifest when intellectual discipline of the laboratory, the willingness to accept evidence and follow the clear logical implications of perceived and discovered truth, is applied to personal life, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, and even when one has clear opportunities to "get away" with a distortion or denial of the truth and a compromise of one's principles.

Duty calls upon the scientist today, in and out of government, to stand strong against the superstition and corporate greed that is hacking at the roots of scientific inquiry, and for those in government to step forth and expose the corruption and censorship of scientific research that is rampant in the Bush Administration. There is no guarantee that scientific advancement will continue forever -- not, at least, in the United States. Like all valuable institutions, it must be defended, more so today. For if science is subverted in this country, it will surely flourish abroad in countries that will, for that very reason, supplant us.

It is time, in short, for the scientists to leave their laboratories and university classes now and then,  and apply the morality inherent in their scientific activity to our schools, our politics, and our culture, lest that activity, and its moral advantages, be lost to us.


Copyright 2007, by Ernest Partridge

 


Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications

Conscience of a Progressive:  A book in progress. 

Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".   His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org .


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances