I have sometimes written here that some in the science and philosophical communities hope to turn science–which properly understood is a method of obtaining and applying information–into a subjective value system/philosophy/quasi-religion–sometimes called scientism. Now, a proponent of this approach has been found to have potentially engaged in misconduct involving research that undercut human exceptionalism by claiming monkeys learn rules. From the story in the Boston Globe:
Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory. The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.
If the research was faked or wrongly interpreted–we don’t know what the exact nature of the problem–it could be because Hauser wanted it to be true because he is an advocate of what I call the Great Human Unexceptionalism Project, in which scientists and other researchers search fervently for every piece of evidence they can construe to prove that we are not unique.
Lest one think I have jumped to a hasty conclusion, the aforementioned allegations are not why I accuse Hauser of being a devotee of scientism. He’s actually pretty open about it. From Michael Cook over at Bioedge:
Harvard professor Marc D. Hauser has persuasively argued that no action is inherently wrong. “We generally do not commit wrong acts because we recognize that they are wrong and because we do not want to pay the emotional price of doing something we perceive as wrong,” he says. As an evolutionary biologist, he is fascinated by the idea of evil and thinks that his research can shed light on its origin and its attraction. “I believe that science, and scientists, have an important role to play in shaping the moral agenda. We have an obligation to use facts and reason to guide what we ought to do,” he contended forcefully in a recent essay on The Edge.
Figuring the moral “oughts” is not a matter of science, but emerges from different aspects of our exceptional and rational natures, e.g., the depths of noetic thinking, philosophy, values, religion, etc, the kind of thinking of which only we are capable. For example, science can tell us that millions were killed during the Holocaust, but it can’t tell us that the genocide was “evil” because that is not a scientific concept. Science can tell us that a chimpanzee may be self aware, but not that such a capacity matters morally.
Scientists should be the most fierce defenders of science against scientism because by conflating the two diametrically opposed concepts, advocates of the latter corrupt the former and diminish its value and public trustworthiness.