In President Obama’s inaugural speech, he announced his intention to “restore science to its rightful place.” In response to Seed Magazine has initiated to The Rightful Place Project whose goal is to recruit scientists and engineers to answer the question: What is science’s rightful place? Available on their website is a form where you can enter your responses to this important question.
Here is mine:
Science is a process by which fact is distinguished from non-fact. I emphasize the word process for just as we live in a nation of laws, not men, science is more than scientists: it is an endeavor of ideas. Scientists have failings; we are flawed and human. Science is a process by which we can overcome our failings and discover the truth. This process may be prolonged, and no individual could lay claim to truth in absolute. But science claims credibility only insofar as it allows scientists to divest themselves of bias through constant introspection and testing by experiment.
As an arbiter of facts, science has an important place in our society, particularly for those who govern us. A policy-maker might ask: what is the nature of this system? How have humans influenced it? How might we change it? Wherever questions like these are asked, science often has useful answers. Further, as science continues to reveal what is possible, it helps us produce new things. If we would like to be a nation of wealth, science can help. We can help by developing new technologies and improving old ones. We can help by reducing waste and determining where human action is directed to futile ends.
The rightful place of science in our society is two-fold. First, it functions as a referee in battles of policy by determining the accuracy of positive statements. Second, it functions as a guide in the progress towards human betterment.
No one argues whether science has an important place in our society. However, the use of the phrase “rightful place” is troublesome and inexact. The word rightful can have two meanings in this context. If it means correct or appropriate, then there is no conflict. All things should seek their appropriate place.
On the other hand, if it means by right or entitlement, the special place of science in our society is not a right like a conferred title or membership in a Medieval guild. Rather, science’s place in our society is a privilege earned through past good behavior. Like all privileges, if scientists prove undeserving, our special place in society should be rescinded.
Participation in science carries many commensurate responsibilities, not least of which is the duty to distinguish science from non-science. Science can only comment on statements of fact. It cannot comment on statements of ethics. Science can tell us what is and in some cases what might be, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Science can make us intelligent, but it cannot make us wise.
Thus, the privileged place of science carries the burden of constant vigilance. Scientists may fail due to bias or over-interpretation of existing evidence. We may fail due to hubris or the belief that we understand a system that cannot be understood. We may fail by misrepresenting personal principle for positive fact. Just as we constantly re-evaluate the accuracy of existing knowledge, we must be constantly vigilant in identifying and correcting these failings in one another. We must police ourselves for the alternative is becoming just one more partisan group — one more untrustworthy voice in the ideological fray.
President Obama argued in his Inaugural Address that though the problems of our time are severe, but we will rise to meet them. Scientists, like any other citizens, must rise to fulfill our responsibilities to the public, even as we are restored to our cherished place. If we are to prove worthy of our privileges, we must be diligent in meeting our responsibilities.