Conflating science with morality

Last week Ross Douthat had a wonderful post on the disturbing tendency to reshape moral and political disagreements in terms of science, thereby restricting debate and giving scientists an unfair advantage:

The culture of science has a bias toward action — if something can be done, scientists almost always want to do it, or at least want the right to do it, without any interference from the civil authorities. This bias is natural enough, and even salutary, so long as we recognize that it is a bias, and don’t allow ourselves to be bullied into thinking that it’s some sort of scientific law or testable hypothesis.But such bullying is commonplace: Throughout the stem cell debate, for instance, supporters of embryo-destructive research have consistently invoked the mantle of capital-S Science to close off what debate on what are ultimately moral and political questions, better settled in a legislature than a laboratory. In such controversies — and there will be more and more of them, as our technological capabilities advance — the problem isn’t exactly that scientific findings are being “spun” by one side or another. It’s that the prerogatives of science are being invoked on questions that science has no special competence to answer.

All of this will be old ground for fans of Dan Sarewitz.  What’s so dispiriting is that while Douthat, Sarewitz, et al. are most certainly correct, they (we?) keep losing.  Heartfelt appeals for honesty and nuance are weak opponents for possible cures to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  Abstract appeals to improved democratic discourse will always lose to the probability, however minuscule, of concrete benefits.

Reversing the trend towards scientizing politics will not be easy.  It will certainly take more than eloquent op-eds and logical arguments.  The current situation exists in no small part because most of the scientific establishment–the professional organizations, the National Academies, the popular science magazines and so on–actively promote it.  They expend much effort and money to achieve their goals, and at this point they’re quite good at it. There’s nothing similar for the Dan Sarewitz’s of the world and there needs to be.

I realize these recommendations may place scientists in an unfamiliar position, one that many will find uncomfortable and somewhat distasteful.  Fellow scientists are not supposed to publicly question our primacy about stem cells or whether science really is the basis of policy.  But such debates will not improve unless our private disagreements on such topics are publicized and publicized widely.  As the education policy scholar Andy Rotherham said in a different context:

…history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension.    More recently Martin Luther King reminds us that the absence of tension is often a negative peace.  So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups and how much of this is par for the course with change.

Andy spoke about education reform, but the same lesson applies if we substitute “more intelligent discourse about science” for “progress for disadvantaged groups.”  In both cases progress requires tension and disagreement.

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