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The Myth of Science's Neutrality

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A bioinformatics specialist, writing at The Conversation, takes the myth of science's neutrality to task. Filipe Gracio of King's College London is harsh but accurate:

There is no pursuit of knowledge that does not seek to affect the world. Science is made by people with interests, intentions and ambitions; and it's funded by governments and companies with agendas. Scientific development is subject to funding rules, to expectations about outcomes, and to social forces and institutions that shape our research. (Emphasis added.)

In this sense, science is really a subset of "The Humanities." What is that? In another piece on The Conversation, philosopher Vincent F. Hendricks of the University of Copenhagen tells us: "Humanities is the study of the human condition and the way we interact with nature, technology, health, art, politics, religion, money and mystery." There's no room for "science" to exempt itself from that definition.

Some scientists, though, would make the humanities their domain. The humanities are a subset of psychology, they argue, which is a subset of anthropology, which reduces to biology; that, in turn, reduces to physics. But who is doing the reducing? Humans, of course. To keep from devouring each other like big fish eating little fish, the science and humanities departments usually occupy separate buildings across campus, holding an uneasy truce. Hendricks thinks the humanities needs to go on offense; Gracio thinks scientists need to own up to their human biases.

Gracio gives examples of bias, such as intellectual property laws governing drug development and recent attempts to patent genes. As a backdrop, he praises the attitude of Jonas Salk. Asked in the 1950s who owned the patent on his new polio vaccine, is reputed to have said: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

That attitude is sadly rare these days, Gracio thinks. He suggests that scientists could be more unbiased, and should be. But Gracio's own arguments suggest this is highly unlikely. Here are some of them:

  • Scientists are at the intersection of competing interests: openness and intellectual property ownership.

  • Scientists seem oblivious to these competing interests. "Ask them about the nature of scientific progress, the funding decisions of their project, the forces behind it or the interests it serves, and you will get a confused look. This is a problem."

  • Scientists cannot justify the predictable outcomes of the projects they are involved in.

  • Scientific outreach is often one-way, viewing "the public" as "merely a recipient vessel which has to understand the decisions made by scientists and research institutions."

  • "Ethics and politics are conspicuously absent" as topics in science curricula.

  • "Scientists often do not have a clear view of the wider impact of their research or think about the forces that shape it."

Gracio is not a pessimist. Even though today "There is an enormous gap between the effects and consequences of science, and how much scientists consider these consequences," he believes, "This is dangerous, but there is something we can do about it." Just as we rightly scrutinize other activities in the public sphere, such as the actions of private companies or funding for social programs, we should scrutinize science.

But there's that "should" word. Does anyone believe it will happen soon? Gracio's final paragraphs sound like a pipe dream:

We scientists should be able to seriously address fundamental questions about our work: what sectors of society does a particular research agenda serve? What agents, public and private, are expected to benefit from anticipated discoveries? What sectors of society might be harmed by them? What could be the misuses of those discoveries? And these answers should go beyond superficial observations used to justify funding.

Scientists often do not have a clear view of the wider impact of their research or think about the forces that shape it. As I have illustrated, the results of their progress have serious consequences. Science is an incredibly powerful force that consumes a vast amount of resources, and those who make this machine run need to make sure it's running in a good direction.

Well, then, maybe a government agency "should" investigate and write a report. This is like repeating the old IBM Pollyanna Principle -- "Machines should work. People should think."

Science is not "out there" like a neutral, robotic thing. The "scientific method" (whatever that is) is not a machine that guarantees, "Input data; output knowledge." Science is always mediated by fallible humans with imperfect knowledge, prone to selfish interests. The picture of science that Cosmos and the NCSE try to portray is flawed. We have every right to scrutinize their funding, their agendas, and their personal biases -- as they do ours.

Rather than looking at "scientists" as a breed apart from the rest of fallible humanity, we should look at science the way C.S. Lewis did. Two insightful comments by Lewis from John West's 2013 book The Magician's Twin bear repeating as we continue to debate evolution, advance intelligent design, evaluate evidence, and explore the implications of ideas.

  • "Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as 'modern science'. There are only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another." (Christian Reflections [1945], p. 82.)

  • "If popular thought feels 'science' to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought." (De Futilitate)

That's where the debate can be engaged: over logic. Logic, however, is no more "out there" than science; it is a child of integrity and honesty. Those don't come out of a test tube, nor can they evolve. We're all in the humanities together. Let's be the most honest, logical humans we can be.

Photo source: lert/Flickr.