Science tells us how the world works, but to decide what those discoveries mean, we need moral and philosophical debate.
| April 2008 issue
Scientists at one of Rome’s most prestigious universities, La Sapienza, were protesting against a visit by Pope Benedict XVI early this year. The Pope was due at a ceremony to open the academic year, but that didn’t sit well with the science department. In a letter to the rector, 67 faculty members said it would be “incongruous” for the Pope to visit, given his comments on Galileo; while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope said the Catholic Church’s trial of the great Italian astronomer was “reasonable and just.” So faculty wanted to block a visit by a religious leader in the name of scientific truth and integrity.
This is a striking story. Today, it seems as if scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into dogma. It appears science has the last word on everything. Scientific studies are often used to tell people how to conduct their relationships and family lives, what food to eat, how much alcohol to drink, how frequently to expose their skin to the sun, even how to have sex. Virtually every aspect of life is discussed in scientific terms, and justified with reference to a piece of research.
Meanwhile, science still invites criticism and skepticism. Its authority is continually scrutinized and subjected to a deeply moralistic critique. Some people wonder if hidden agendas or interests are behind certain studies. Many understand that last year’s scientific advice is often contradicted by new findings further down the line. Others worry about the potential for destruction that might be unleashed by genetic manipulation or nanotechnology.
The attitude of Western society toward science is contradictory. In the absence of political vision and direction, society regularly hides behind scientific authority—but it doesn’t quite believe science has the answers, and worries about the potentially rotten fruits of discovery.
Yet whatever misgivings people have about science, its power is unrivalled. Its formidable influence can be seen in the way environmentalists rely on its weight to support their arguments. In the 1970s and ‘80s, leading environmentalists insisted science was undemocratic and blamed it for many of the problems facing the planet. Now this hostility has given way to an embrace and endorsement of the field. Today, the environmental lobby depends on the legitimization provided by scientific evidence and expertise. In their public performances, environmentalists frequently wield its influence in a dogmatic fashion. This is what science says we must do, many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is finished.
In January, David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, caused a stink by criticizing extreme green “Luddites” who are “hurting” the environmental cause. Yet when science is politicized, as it has been under King, who once claimed that “the science shows” global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, it can quickly and inexorably be converted into dogma, superstition and prejudice. It’s the broader politicization of science that nurtures today’s dogmatic green outlook.
Religion and political ideologies no longer inspire a significant segment of the public. Politicians find it difficult to justify their work and outlook in the vocabulary of morality. Officials now promote policies on the grounds that they’re “evidence-based” rather than right or good. In policy-making circles, the language of right and wrong has been displaced by the pat phrase “The research shows… ”
So pervasive is the crisis of belief and morality that religious institutions are affected. Fundamentalists no longer rely on Biblical texts to affirm their belief in Creation; the invention of “creation science” by Christian fundamentalists is symptomatic of the trend to supplement traditional belief with scientific authority.
Likewise, members of the anti-abortion movement no longer restrict themselves to denouncing a medical procedure they consider evil on moral grounds. They rely increasingly on sweeping studies and technical expertise to advance their cause, arguing that having an abortion is bad for a woman’s health and is likely to cause post-abortion trauma. The question “When does life begin?” was once a moral issue, bound up in competing views of morality, rights and human consciousness. Today, anti-abortion activists reference medical research, citing a textbook definition of when life begins: They argue that because “the evidence” shows fetuses can survive at 24 weeks, this proves the unquestionable beginning of life.
Despite its formidable intellectual powers, science can only provide a provisional solution to the contemporary crisis of belief. The whole area of inquiry emerged through a struggle with religious dogma, and depends on an open-ended orientation toward experimentation and the testing of ideas. Indeed, science is an inherently skeptical enterprise, since it respects no authority other than evidence. That’s why Britain’s oldest and most respected scientific institution, the Royal Society, was founded on the motto: “On the Word of No One.” The message is clear: Knowledge of the material world should be based on evidence rather than authority.
The critical spirit embodied in that motto is frequently violated today by the growing tendency to treat the lab as an unquestionable purveyor of Truth. It’s telling that the Royal Society recently dropped the phrase “On the Word of No One” from its website, while its former president, Lord Robert May, prefers to use the motto “Respect the Facts” these days.
Many religious leaders, politicians and environmentalists have little interest in engaging in the voyage of discovery through scientific experimentation. Instead they often appear to be politicizing science, or moralizing it. For example, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has claimed scientific evidence offers (inconvenient) Truths.
The transition between a scientific fact and moral exhortation is navigated with remarkable ease in a world where people lack the confidence to speak in the language of right and wrong. But turning science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it can’t say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires the development of theories and the discovery of facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral and philosophical investigation and debate.
If science is turned into a moralizing project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the 21st century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: “We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.”
Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His latest book is Invitation to Terror. A longer version of this article originally appeared on the website Spiked (spiked-online.com).