Mike the Mad Biologist

Science Does Teach Values…

…such as a respect for the truth. So says Dennis Overbye:

Worse, not only does it [science] not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.

So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad.

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

The only thing I would add to this is that science, successful science anyway, requires a certain minimum of honesty. You can’t fudge data because it is philosophically, politically, or religiously inconvenient. No “Liars for Jesus” allowed (or any secular counterparts).

Comments

  1. #1 abb3w
    January 30, 2009

    It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter.

    It does require the metaphysical commitment to the conception that nature has some underlying pattern of a sort we can hope to understand, such that the interrogation makes any sort of sense; which is to say Hume’s problem of Induction (or even Empiricus’s older version) have hope of answer.

    However, that relationship might be a little too subtle for a journalism major to grasp. =)

  2. #2 Julie Stahlhut
    January 30, 2009

    ” … devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.”

    That idea has always been a total WTF? to me. First, most of the organismal biologists I know are in their field at least partly because they became fascinated with their research subjects — not just as pieces of data, but as amazing living things. I’ve always assumed that people in other areas of science — geologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists etc . — had a similar love for their subjects.

    Second, people love to talk about the “magic and mystery” of butterflies and flowers and stars, but that same “magic and mystery” of nature includes cancer, infectious disease, famine, and the extinction of species. We leave those subjects to “mystery” only at our peril.

    Oh, and the people who study butterflies and songbirds and forests still find those things beautiful.

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    January 30, 2009

    Worse, not only does it [science] not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

    And if you suggest to those same detractors that learning about wine [1] “robs [wine] of its magic and mystery,” they’ll call you a Philistine and go to great lengths on how the uneducated palate cannot truly appreciate a fine vintage.

    The Defense rests.

    [1] Substitute poetry, art, etc. as appropriate.

  4. #4 nusret
    August 22, 2009

    very thanks for article