Human Exceptionalism

ESCR: “Scientific Optimism” versus “Scientific Despair”

My friend Eric Cohen, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has an interesting article” The Ends of Science,” in the current First Things (no link available). “Whenever I meet with scientists,” he writes, “I’m always struck by the optimism and despair.”

One aspect of this seeming paradox plays out in the embryonic stem cell and human cloning research debates, according to Cohen: “Perhaps one reason the debate about embryonic stem cells has become so prominent is that it combines scientific optimism and scientific despair so completely: the optimistic search for cures, the discontent that nature yields remedies for her afflictions so slowly, the resentment at Bush-administration moralists for standing in the way of scientific progress for nonscientific reasons. The greatest animus among scientists is directed at religious believers, often defined as anyone who seeks limits on scientific freedom for ethical reasons the scientists themselves do not find compelling. The deans of major research centers feel like persecuted Galileos, yet they defend their turf in the most unscientific ways: treating the paralyzed as props in the campaign for research funding, promising cures based only on preliminary experiments, caricaturing every opponent as an irrational fanatic.

“For it turns out that the methods of science cannot vindicate the ends of science, and the knowledge acquired by scientific methods cannot always justify the particular experiments used to acquire it. Yet scientists desperately want such vindication in the eyes their fellow citizens.”

This analysis seems flawless to me. But I would go even further. I think that many among the science intelligentsia (as opposed to bench scientists) have turned science into their religion–scientism–in which they fervently believe it leads to Truth. But it can’t. Science can’t tell us right from wrong. It is a method for obtaining and applying knowledge. When it is turned into an ideology, science itself is corrupted.

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