On the Morality of Science
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,
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
"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
A scientist or a scholar is an individual who has determined, as much as
humanly possible, to be (psychologically) persuaded only by (logical)
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
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
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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org .