Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why we must protect science.

John Horgan, "Political Science," in The New York Times, Sunday, December 18, 2005, at p. 11.
Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (New York: Basic Books, 2005), $24.95.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania today decided, wisely, that "intelligent design" should not be included in the biology curriculum of a High School in that state, since it is a hidden form of religious instruction or belief, so that it may not be mandated by the state. I argued for exactly this conclusion in an earlier post at "Critical Vision," entitled: "Charles Darwin and the Intelligent Designers."

In the Sunday Times, an intriguing recent book is reviewed and a new term is introduced into our public discourse about science -- "science abuse." I love it. I will make use of it, as the flip side of "scientism." Science abuse is defined as:

... any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons.

I would add "for religious reasons" to this definition. Although Mr. Mooney's book focuses on Republicans, I think the term should be applied to public officials, of either party, who seek to interfere with or alter the scientific process or the conclusions drawn by scientists about science and the empirical world. We can disagree with scientists (or anyone else) concerning value judgments or politics, the ethical or aesthetic implications or meanings of current scientific knowledge, or concerning spiritual values, but determinations of the content of our scientific knowledge must be left to scientists. I am looking forward to reading A People's History of Science.

Notice that I am setting aside, for the moment, issues concerning the objectivity of scientific knowledge as a picture of empirical reality or doubts (I don't have any) about the values of the scientific enterprise, since I think conclusions about matters that are internal to a practice -- say, biological study and research -- should also be made first and most importantly by scientists. The rest of us are free to raise other criticisms (of an ethical sort) in response to such judgments.

Grudgingly, Mr. Mooney acknowledges that science abuse is not exclusively a right-wing "sin" (I couldn't resist that last word), so he criticizes Greenpeace for exaggerating the risks of genetically modified "Frankenfoods," while listing other anti-science blunders of the self-styled "pro-science" faction of Leftist fashionistas, as they munch on macrobiotic rice and protest against George W. Bush, in their black Converse sneakers, with a hand-painted peace sign taped to their bodies.

Mr. Mooney's worst criticisms are reserved, quite properly, for the idiotic opposition to Darwin and evolution, along with the many other foolish attacks on science, from arch-conservatives. These people mistakenly believe that religious faith requires conflict with science. It doesn't. To those objecting to evolution on the grounds that they are "not descended from apes," I say: "That's how you prove that you ARE an ape, you moron."

Darwin suggested that humans and apes have a "common ancestor," but not that we are directly descended from apes. In a way, however, we are directly related to all animal life on the planet, since all mammals have common ancestors in the first creatures to emerge from the sea, giving rise to the evolution of mammals, like us, over millions of years of development in reaction to a changing environment.

"I am not a mammal," your local Christian fundamentalist insists, "I am an Episcopelian!"

I offer the only possible rational response that can be given by a civilized human being to this statement: "It's the same thing, folks." Since all persons are mammals, and all Episcopelians are (allegedly) persons, it follows that Episcopelians are mammals. QED. Of course, this proof may not apply to Baptists.

I hate to break the news to Christian fundamentalists or to any other religious dogmatists, but they are indeed animals, just like the rest of us. On the other hand, we are really special animals, capable (I think) of freedom, of creating and appreciating beauty, and of loving others. We are animals who make ourselves something more by developing a healthy spirituality in our natures. Some of us even become scientists, contributing to everyone's understanding of nature.

I prefer to think that I am related to the peaceful creatures that I have seen in the Bronx Zoo, than to admit that I am a member of the same species that produces someone like Hitler or Stalin on a regular basis. Steven Jay Gould said pretty much the same thing years ago. Thank goodness for Da Vinci and Einstein, Jane Austen and Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., who balance the scales as much as possible.

Science tells us "what's up" with the world in which we live. Why does the earth orbit the sun? How did we come to be the creatures that we are? What's peanut butter made of? How come my socks don't stay up? That kind of stuff. Science ALONE tells us these things. Yet our values questions cannot be answered by science. What is beauty? Is there a God? What is the most just form of political order?

Scientific inquiries should be supplemented by other forms of inquiry that are concerned with human meanings. This is not a criticism of science. It is a way of recognizing our complexity and the limitations of all forms of inquiry.

These values questions allow scientists to express opinions and to reason with us, as fellow citizens, not as bringers of truth but only as fellow "humble inquirers." The same goes for religious people when they enter ethical debates in the public square. Even politicians are inspired to say: "On the one hand," and then, "on the other hand." Ethical truths that we discover and/or create are communal property. They are fashioned collectively, by humanity, based on philosophical wisdom and usually all-too slowly, over decades and centuries. Hey, science works that way too. How about that? Cool.

Philosophical ability is an equal opportunity talent found in everyone. ("Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers," I was told.) It requires that we make use of science and many other disciplines, also that we develop emotional wisdom and a talent for sound judgment. But then, come to think of it, scientific ability is also found in all sorts of people. If more of us received a better scientific education, then we may expect greater progress in science. How about more scholarships for poor children to study science? I am "for" that.

Don't mess with science. Don't politicize it. Science is great. But there will always be questions that science cannot answer for us, as I say, because we -- each of us (individually) and all of us (collectively) -- are required to figure out these answers for ourselves, that is, if we wish to remain free. Wisdom must be achieved by each of us and cannot be a gift to us from men and women in white coats.

What's life about? What is good? Why are women so difficult to understand? These are the eternal questions of philosophy which remains (for me) the "Queen of the Sciences." Mostly this is because philosophy is not -- and can never be -- a science. For one thing, philosophy needs to ask questions about the ethics of science that are not scientific questions. These questions have puzzled humanity for centuries; they will continue to do so. Yet we must continue to try to answer them because they are really important questions.

Stephen Jay Gould explained that he was not dismayed by this inability of science to solve philosophical or ethical issues because he did not believe that nature should contain moral messages for us, but that we must construct or discover our own ethical truths, freely, based on the objective needs of people and careful reasoning. I remember Carl Sagan agreeing with this conclusion in the series "Cosmos." Sagan believed that it was a good thing that we are FREE to philosophize as well as to pursue scientific investigations. Me too.

If you prefer Marx to my philosophical heros (Kant, Jefferson, Hegel, Bradley, Ricoeur and a few others), then remember that great sentence from his writings: "From each according to his ability to each according to his [or her] needs." Or just read your Bible, as literature or religiously, depending on your inclination. Shakespeare won't kill you either. Many scientists read both works of scientific scholarship and great humanistic texts. Alternatively, you may wish to reflect on the great rationality and order, the beauty and elegance revealed by science in the universe where we find ourselves, but also to ponder the beauty in us, in an entirely secular way.

Final decisions concerning right and wrong, freedom and equality will remain for you to make, for yourself, and not for anyone to make on your behalf. In arriving at those decisions, you will find help from many sources, poets and painters, philosophers, scientists and actors, even lawyers and those much dreaded accountants (gulp) may be helpful. But you will not get better advice on how to be a good person than this: "Whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers [and sisters] of mine, that you do on to me."

In Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, the thought is expressed in more contemporary terms:

... whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at nighttime and for pleasure or for pain, write on the wall of your house in letters for the sun to guild and the moon to silver "Whatever happens to another happens to oneself," and should anyone ask you what such an inscription can possibly mean, you can answer that it means "Lord Christ's heart and Shakespeare's brain."

This sounds a lot like an ethic of love. Great, it allows us to love both scientists and religious people. My guess is that, in contemporary America, we are likely to run into persons who are religious and into others who are scientifically-minded. It is also possible for any one of us to become both religious (or spiritually-minded) and scientific. Now that's what I call the best of both worlds, a kind of metaphysical bipartisanship, finding support from both sides of the academic aisle.



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