Human Exceptionalism

Time to Separate Scientism and State

Liberty would be just as threatened by a scientocracy as by theocracy. But many within the science and bioethical sectors miss this because they conflate “science” with “scientism.”

Scientism”–the belief that Truth (capital-T) can be derived by science–is not the same as science, meaning the learning method of discovering truth (small-t) and developing applications and technology to apply the knowledge thereby derived.  Thus as opposed to the scientific method, scientism is an ideology–in some cases, such as transhumanism–even something of a quasi-faith. The scientism faithful presume that all of us non scientists should bow down before the scientific consensus and let “the scientists” decide some of society’s most important policy issues. To deny such domination, in this view, is “anti science.”

Here’s a good example of the kind of advocacy to which I refer. An article in the New Statesman by Brian Cox and Robin Ince argues that the opinions of pundits, politicians, and the people should give way to “science.” From, “Politicians Must Not Elevate Mere Opinion Over Science:”

The key to science is in this simple statement from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, who once remarked: “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

The assertion is surely uncontroversial, but implementing it can be prohibitively difficult, primarily because it demands that everything be subordinate to evidence. Accepting this is fraught with cultural difficulty, because authority in general rests with grandees, gods, or more usually some inseparable combination of the two. Even in a secular democracy, a fundamental tenet of the system is that politicians are elected to reflect and act upon the opinions of the people, or are at least given temporary authority by the people to act upon their own.

And that is as it should be. Take the embryonic stem cell debate as just one example. “Science” can tell us the nature and properties of the human embryo at the ten-day development stage. It can inform us how the embryonic stem cell lines are derived–usually involving the embryo destruction–and the expected uses to which stem cells might be put. 

But science cannot tell us the moral value of the embryo. It can’t tell us whether it is ethical or unethical to use nascent human life instrumentally. It can’t tell us whether the lives of the Parkinson’s patient who might benefit from the destruction of the embryo has a greater claim to life than the embryo. That is the role of morality, ethics, religion, and philosophy. Even if every life scientist on the planet wanted to conduct ESCR, certainly account should be taken, but the scientists’ opinion on the moral propriety of the research should not be controlling. 

The authors admit there are places where policy questions involving issues that concern science are not scientific, but they then quickly blame those who disagree with the “scientific consensus” for the growing public distrust of science:

Climate science is one of a series of areas that, for primarily non-scientific reasons, has become controversial; and these controversies risk undermining confidence in the very idea of science. Others are the use of genetically modified crops, vaccination policy and even (God help us) the teaching of evolution in schools. These socio-political-religious controversies risk damaging public confidence in science, partly because of the tactics employed by their advocates, which, if unchecked, will have grave consequences because we live in a society dominated by science. People who rail against science risk becoming disenfranchised, because many of the most important decisions we face as a society have a scientific component. And the larger and more vocal the disenfranchised minority, the less likely we are to make decisions based on the best available evidence and understanding.

We shouldn’t be “dominated by science.” And just because a question has a “scientific component,” that doesn’t mean the views of scientists should prevail. Indeed, it is precisely because the sector is so powerful–and because science per se is amoral–that ordered liberty requires robust checks and balances to establish proper ethical parameters beyond which scientists are not allowed to tread. Thus, the Animal Welfare Act constrains what scientists can do in many animal experiments–sometimes, at the cost of deriving knowledge sooner, or at all. Ditto, human subject research regulations that unquestionably slow down the obtaining of knowledge about human physiology.

The authors conclude by constructing a classic straw man:

We live in exciting times; our access to knowledge has never been greater, but this also means that humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease. We cannot afford to sit back and enjoy the achievements of previous generations, and decide that we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday was not dazzled by the convenience of gaslight. We must not use our comparative comfort and luxury to elevate opinion above science or, even worse, to argue that scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary. It would be a gross mistake to assume, for the first time in human history, that there are no great discoveries left to make.

No one argues that. But the authors have to understand that many issues of science now–as opposed, say, to the development of electricity–involve the meaning and moral importance (if any) of human life. That question (among many others) is too important to be left to “the scientists.”

It is time to separate scientism and state, says I. Indeed, as the (from my perspective) unethical opinions of Nobel Prize winners James Watson and Sir John Gurdon demonstrate–the public is often better able to determine right from wrong in areas of science policy than the most brilliant scientists.


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