Now, here’s something you don’t see every day; an essay in Nature (no link available) urging humility in creating public policy around science. The author, Sheila Jasanoff, is a professor of Science and Technology Studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She suggests that even in science, perhaps our most objective area of thought and inquiry, “certainty” is “an unattainable state,” and that:
Real problems in the real world are infinitely complex and for any given problem, science offers only part of the picture.
Using the debate about global warming as an example, she suggests that even though the problem and its causes are generally agreed upon (me: which in itself may illustrate how politics increasingly intrudes upon science, but let us not get into the global warming debate here), how to respond and to which area to give priority requires analysis and a search for answers which will involve uncertainty:
How should policy-makers deal with these layers of ignorance? The short answer is with humility, about both the limits of scientific knowledge and about when to stop turning to science to solve problems. Policy-makers need to focus on when it is bets to look beyond science for ethical solutions. And science advisers need to admit that other sorts of analysis must also inform political decisions.
I don’t know if Jasanoff would agree or not, but that seems to me to be precisely the tack taken in the human cloning and embryonic stem cell debates. Those who wish to put reasonable parameters on creating human life via manufacture, and who wish to limit the instrumental use of nascent (and more developed) human beings, base their analysis in scientific knowledge, e.g., an embryo is a distinct and fully integrated human organism, and using other areas of human thought and awareness to determine the ethical issues involved with these technologies. For this, we are branded as somehow “anti-science” or are accused of trying to impose religious barriers to thwart scientific advancement, which is funny considering that many of those who worry about these issues (think Jeremy Rifkin) are not publicly religious at all. When “the scientists” try to stifle this argument in policy debates through name calling and questioning of motives, they engage in precisely the hubristic approach that Jasanoff warns against in her interesting essay.
This call for humility is a plea for policy-makers to cultivate, and for universities to teach, modes of knowing that are often pushed aside in expanding scientific understanding and technological capacity. It is a request for research on what people value and why they value it. It is a prescription to supplement science with the analysis of those aspects of the human condition that science cannot easily illuminate. It is a call for policy analysts and policy-makers to re-engage with the moral foundations for acting in the face of inevitable scientific uncertainty.
Agreed. First step, it seems to me, is to determine our first principles to guide us in the ethical use of the awesomely powerful scientific method. I suggest that at least as to those areas that impact directly on human life, science should be mediated by the ethical and moral ideal of universal human equality and the intrinsic value of each human life. If we head down the scientific road from that trail head, we won’t go too far wrong.