November 08, 2010
"science and politics can't be divorced"
No matter where I look, it seems there's no getting away from people who seek to impose their morality on others.
Take today's headline. "Climate scientists plan campaign against global warming skeptics"
John Abraham of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, who last May wrote a widely disseminated response to climate change skeptics, is also pulling together a "climate rapid response team," which includes scientists prepared to go before what they consider potentially hostile audiences on conservative talk radio and television shows.I sensed something in Michigan's student newspaper last week, in which a prominent researcher announced that there had to be a major shift in morality, because we must be made to see to see the burning of fossil fuels the same way we see slavery.
The problem is that these rhetorical and moral arguments simply are not science. The questions of whether the climate is changing and the theory of why it might be changing do involve science, but the questions of what could or should be done about it, the weighing the pros and cons in the form of a cost-benefit analysis -- these are inherently political questions. Scientists can invent new technologies, new drugs and vaccines, but their implementation is not up to them, nor is it up to them to judge human morality or immorality. Whether a breakthrough in life extension technology is ultimately for the good of mankind or the bad is not up to the researchers -- any more than the ultimate deployment of the Hiroshima bomb was up to the scientists at Alamogordo. Of course, being free people, we are all entitled to our opinions, including scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, who waxed philosophically about his work:
After the initial euphoria of witnessing the explosion had passed, test director Kenneth Bainbridge commented to Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Oppenheimer later stated that while watching the test he was reminded of a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita:While it was perfectly OK for Oppenheimer to say that, it can hardly be considered science. Oppenheimer had serious moral problems with the use of the bomb, and he had every right to become an anti-nuclear activist, just as scientists are free to oppose nuclear weapons or nuclear power today. But if scientists declared that political activism against nukes constitutes "science" (or that it was a "scientific consensus") that would not make it science.Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
The assignment of collective blame and the insistence that something be done is not science. It is a public policy argument based on morality, with quasi-religious overtones. Calling it science contaminates morality and debases science.
Scientists who wish to impose their morality on us are of course free to try, but they shouldn't be able to get away with calling it science, nor should they have a leg up on everyone else just because of scientific credentials.
I miss the good old days of separation of morality and science.
posted by Eric on 11.08.10 at 10:16 AM
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