Evolving Thoughts

The Place of Science in Society

It came as an email. Then it was on the Seed Bloggers Forum. Now it’s on my frigging Facebook – they really want me to answer this:

In his first speech as President-elect last November, Barack Obama reminded us of the promise of “a world connected by our own science and imagination.” And on Tuesday, in his inaugural address, President Obama cemented his commitment to a new ethos and culture by vowing to “restore science to its rightful place.”

At Seed, we are firmly committed to President Obama’s vision and want to help make it a reality. We begin today by asking you, our friends and colleagues in science, and outside science, to respond to the President’s idea of a “rightful place” for science. What is science’s rightful place?

Asseverations below the fold…

To ask a HPS (History and Philosophy of Science) graduate this question is fraught. With confusions, difficulties, fine discriminations and general nitpicking. So I will try to stay as ordinary language as it is possible for me to do, and let my colleagues figure out what I mean in technical terms.

“The” role of science in society is something of a myth. To assert there is one, and only one, rightful place for any institution, from marriage to jurisprudence, is to overlook the dynamic nature of society as it evolves, and anyway, there’s a problem calling something “rightful”. According to God, or the US Constitution, or what? So in what follows I will talk instead about what roles science has previously had in which it was of most benefit to the overall social fabric. This is the best we can do – there’s no magic crystal ball that will tell us what will work in the future, as the number of imponderables is too high. Always in evolutionary processes like social evolution, or indeed the evolution of science itself, we can only say what worked in the past. David Hull has a nice slogan – evolution is like the Prussian military academies of the nineteenth century, which turn out officers admirably equipped to win the last war.

So what has been the better roles that science has played in society, and which, all things being equal and roughly the same as before, it should play a benign role again? I can think of two periods and domains in which science has been a relative benefit overall: medicine and communications, in the period of the post-Enlightenment (mostly the nineteenth century) and in the post-War era of the twentieth. Both of these are, of course, technologies, but they rely heavily on science. But from this we cannot conclude that the “rightful” place of science is in the preparation of new technologies. Governments in particular like to think this is the rightful place of science, but that is a bit like saying that the rightful place of agriculture is the contribution it makes to the nice taste one gets from candy.

Science is, above all other institutions, the way of knowing about the natural world, which increasingly is being seen to include the human, social, world as well. Aristotle started out his book Metaphysics with the optimistic statement “all by nature desire to know”, which isn’t true, but many people do, just because we are curious apes. The best that science is and does is when we investigate things without expectation that there will be an immediate, quantifiable, economic or social benefit; so-called “basic research”. Spinoffs are inevitable, because knowledge of the way things really behave is going to increase our abilities to do things rightly, and avoid doing things wrongly with all the attendant costs associated with mistakes (like thinking that unprotected levees will hold back a Category 5 hurricane surge), but that cannot be the reason to do science, as that way we allow our pre-judgements to bias our results. In other words, we get what we expect to get, and not what we should get.

Scientific advice to policy makers should be fair, unbiased and comprehensive, but that is an ideal outcome almost never realised, so instead what we need is for our political masters to know what real scientists are saying. When 99% of climatologists say anthropogenic global warming is real, that means 1% say it is open to doubt. The president must be advised honestly of that. Scientific advice is more than just “X is true” but rather “Many think X, but some think Y and Z is a possibility too”. And the politicians are going to have to do some intellectual work of their own. The rightful “place” of science is to get people thinking critically based on evidence for themselves.

I said that science has had periods and places of benign influence. It pays also to see where it has bad influences, where it is malign. Obviously, there are cases of Nazi science and the like, but these are as aberrant as the social conditions in which they occur, and do not generalise as well as denialists like Steve Fuller seem to think. Instead there is another malignancy – treating scientists and science like priests and doctrines. This is sometimes referred to as “scientism“, and it is the basis for most arguments that this or that scientific theory is a “religion“. Sure, scientific theories get appropriated for political and social agendas all the time – Lenin’s pamphlet “Scientific Socialism” is an example of that. But it doesn’t therefore reflect back on the nature of the theories themselves, an error that non-scientists often make.

So we should conclude that science will be best for all, based on our past experience, when we allow it to be un-pragmatic and not treat it like a dogma, either in policy making or in general life. That’s my view, anyway.


  1. #1 Jack Kolinski
    January 24, 2009

    Very thoughtful and helpful discussion although you give too much credence to “scientism.” “Scientism” sounds like a concept invented by the Intelligent Design pseudo-science crowd and acknowledged by those in the scientific community who do not want to risk offending the religious right (FAR too many to date!). The main reason science can take on “religious” “dogmatic” overtones (i.e. “scientism”) is because it is continually and unceasingly fighting for survival with religious dogma that has no need to search for truth because THE “truth” has already been revealed to each separate religion (and NO others!). Religion that accepts and incorporates all that science has to offer ceases to be religion in any meaningful sense and the people in charge of religion (follow the money) know this all too well. I understand that for political and marketing purposes, science may well want to attempt to placate religion whenever possible and perhaps this is all you were trying to do. Still, it is unrealistic and dangerous to assume that science and religion can peacefully coexist indefinitely as co-equals and with “mutual respect” for one another. One is based on fact, observation, experiment, reasoning and MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL, a willingness to change course, back up, modify, amend, and even rescind everything it thought it knew when the facts warrant a change of course. The other can scarcely tolerate these fundamental real world notions. It looks forward to “the End of Days,” the “Rapture,” “seventy virgins” and other equally absurd myths, superstitions, fantasies and folk tales and mocks any and all facts and acquired knowledge to the contrary. In fact, I would define “scientism” as “conventional” religion minus all the myth, dogma and hocus pocus. As such, I am quite proud to be a “scientist.” But for that connection with and “belief” in science, I probably would not be able to call myself a scientist. And it sounds much better than atheist or even “bright.” WOW! Thanks for your article! I’ve found religion again! I’m a zealous, practicing scientist! Praise be to Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan.

  2. #2 Arikia
    January 24, 2009

    Kudos, John Wilkins. Kudos.

  3. #3 yogi-one
    January 25, 2009

    Dr Wilkins – yours is the kind of input the Obama people need to hear. Of all the people that have been sent that thing, you are in the minority of those actually qualified to give an incisive and intelligent answer.

    Sometimes, not being a professional scientist, I am lost by the end of your posts.

    But this one spoke to me, and, as far as I am concerned, it shows you have the gift of being able to communicate to non-scientists what is important about scientific topics that the public needs to understand. I think you should be on Obama’s science team. You could would give a nice counterbalance to the politicos and to those overly enthusiastic folks who are all hot to change the world, but need a little more grounding in understanding the complexity of the issues they face and the possible outcomes of different approaches.

    Your well-tempered perspective and your years of experience with precisely the issues that the Obama people (Obamites? Obi-wans? Obioids?) are saying they want to tackle makes you a strong candidate to get in there and actually try to nudge things in the right direction. They are saying they are looking for people like you.

    I can’t imagine a better outcome than someone with your perspective touring and speaking around the country to institutions and groups that need a dose of the clarity your post here shows. That would be something I would enjoy seeing my tax dollars be used for!

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