The Virtue of Scientific Thinking

The Virtue of Scientific Thinking

by Steven Shapin

“Senator J. William Fulbright’s later expansion to the “military-industrial-academic complex” recognized that universities were no longer to be thought of as disengaged ivory towers; they had become crucial resources for both the economy and the national security state.”
“Science’s goals were increasingly identified as their goals; its ways of doing things, their ways. One consequence is that a great deal of scientific inquiry has merged with institutions whose goals are presumed to include profit and power, not the disinterested search for truth—and certainly not moral uplift.”
“Now, however, scientists and their paymasters work hard to identify science with technology, wanting nothing more than to have the authority of science supported by the utility of technology. This is one of the more visible signs of the folding of science into normal civic sensibilities. But when you model the search for knowledge on the search for power, you disrupt the historical association between the scientist and the priest and, substantially, between the idea of science and the idea of moral uplift.”
“With the existentialists, “grown-ups” now recognize that solutions to problems of meaning and morality can come only from us and not from above—and certainly not from scientists. Morality cannot be outsourced.”
” “Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it,” he wrote. Scientism—the tendency to think one could extend scientific method everywhere and thereby solve problems of morality, value, aesthetics, and social order—was just sloppy thinking.”
“This Victorian scientism had a future, and it now has a substantial present. In the modern American academy and in intellectual publishing, scientism, and specifically the redefinition of moral problems as scientific problems, is resurgent.”
“Science, it is now claimed, will show us what is good and how to live the good life—and if it does not now have the ability to do so fully and effectively, then we should rest assured that it soon will. Science will cure problems of moral relativism, and it will reveal the objective truth of some set of moral positions as opposed to fraudulent others.”
“Morality, neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, “should be considered an undeveloped branch of science,” and science, he says, “can determine human values.””
“According to this newly confident scientism, science is the only bit of culture that can make you good because it trumps all the others—religion, traditional ethical codes, common sense. Or it shows them to be nonsense. Or—with or without awareness of the irony—it brands them immoral: religion is a “God delusion,” licensing prejudice, servility, and slaughter, all of which are morally wrong.”
“But there are several reasons why the ambitions of the new scientism may be self-limiting. Those who speak in the name of nature must face the fact that nature has never spoken with one voice. Different scientists draw different moral inferences from science. Some have concluded that it is natural and good to be ruthlessly competitive; others see it natural to cooperate and trust; still others embrace the lesson of the naturalistic fallacy and oppose the project of inferring the moral from the natural. That was the basis of T. H. Huxley’s skepticism in 1893:

The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”
“And here the new scientism, for all its claims that there is a way science can make you good, shares one crucial sensibility with its opponents: having secularized nature, and sharing in the vocational circumstances of late modern science, the proponents of the new scientism can make no plausible claims to moral superiority, nor even moral specialness.”
“So the cost of modern skepticism about scientific virtue is paid not just by scientists but by all of us. The complex problems once belonging solely to the spheres of prudence and political action are now increasingly conceived as scientific problems: if the global climate is indeed warming, and if the cause is human activity, then policies to restrict carbon emissions are warranted; if hepatitis C follows an epidemiological trajectory resulting in widespread liver failure, then the high price of new drugs may be justified. The success of modern is-expertise has propelled it powerfully into the world of ought-judgment.

That is why there can be no glib “of course” about discarding the idea of scientific virtue. We need to trust scientists, but we need scientists to be trustworthy.”

From Boston Review


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