Thursday, June 29, 2017

by Heather Douglas, Associate Professor, Philosophy, University of Tennessee

Heather Douglas was one of two respondents who spoke after Mons. Sorondo’s talk, and joined the Monsignor and the other respondent, Carl Mitcham of the Colorado School of Mines, for discussion with the audience.  Here is the text of her response:

[see additional links at bottom]

Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo has presented us with a nuanced view of the relationships between truth, justice, and power in science.  I want to elaborate on these themes, drawing from his Excellency’s eloquent talk.

As his Excellency noted, there is no idea of justice contained within the natural sciences as a set of propositions.  In the descriptive account of the world science provides, no moral “oughts” lurk.  But if we consider the pursuit of truth as a project, the importance of justice emerges.

First, justice is required to structure the communal discourse essential to the practice of science.  The fair treatment of one’s fellow scientists’ arguments, the open access for all to the forum of science, and the respect for human rights in the practice of science all require a commitment to justice.  So a community bound by clear moral precepts is a requirement for science as a practice.

But there is also the decision to do science, and, the decision of which science to do, that requires a moral sensibility.  This moral sensibility must be directed outwards, beyond the boundaries of the scientific community, to the broader society in which science functions.  Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo makes this clear with his quote from Bernard of Clairvaux:

“There are people who only wish to know for the sake of knowing: this is base curiosity. Others wish to know in order that they themselves may be known: this is shameful vanity, and such people cannot escape the mockery of the satirical poet who said about their likes: ‘For you, knowing is nothing unless someone else knows that you know.’ Then there are those who acquire knowledge in order to re-sell it, and for example to make money or gain honours from it: their motive is distasteful. But some wish to know in order to edify: this is charity. Others in order to be edified: this is wisdom. Only those who belong to these last two categories do not misuse knowledge, since they only seek to understand in order to do good.”  (Quoted on pp. 5-6, from St. Bernardus, Sermo XXXVI in Cantica, PL, CLXXXIII, 968.)

Pursuing knowledge merely for personal gain in fame or wealth is morally base, but so is doing so just for one’s personal curiosity, as St. Bernard suggested.  Contrary to the pure-science ideal, pursuing knowledge just because one can is inadequate justification for the venture.  This does not mean that pursuing knowledge for its own sake is to be completely shunned.  As St. Bernard tells us, the best reasons to pursue knowledge are in order to edify or be edified, and truth about the world can, of itself, be edifying.   But when scientific knowledge ceases to be edifying, for example when it merely reinforces the ideologies of the status quo or provides a ready path to harm others, no moral cover is to be found under the cloak of curiosity or the pursuit of truth.  A reexamination of how one’s research project is framed, and whose interests it serves, is in order.

The choice of what research to pursue is perhaps the most important choice a scientist makes.  Scientists often insist they must be free to make these choices, but if they are granted that freedom, they must then bear the responsibility that comes with the choice, including the potential for moral condemnation.  While the propositions of scientific knowledge do not contain “oughts” within them, they are not morally or politically neutral.  Empirical claims, such as what humans essentially are or how the environment actually works or what the universe’s basic functioning consists of, have moral valence in three ways.  1) Scientific knowledge can serve as key justifications for moral decisions, providing an empirical basis on which a moral ought can gain traction.  For example, once we know we are transforming the world’s climate in ways that can seriously harm the poorest among us, we have a new moral imperative to act in certain ways.  Because of science’s authority concerning the natural world, this moral valence is never far removed.  2)  Scientific knowledge can extend the power of humanity to act in the world for good or ill.  Science is in continual interaction and mutual production with technology.  Knowledge generates technology, and technology generates knowledge.  This increases humanity’s ability to act in the world in both constructive and destructive ways.   3)  Because of endemic empirical uncertainty, scientific knowledge must rest in part on value claims.  This last point needs elaboration first.

While science aims at truth, it does not always succeed.  The history of science is littered with its missteps, from the crystalline spheres which held the planets in their epicyclic wanderings, to light’s oscillating aether, to the essentialist hormonal theories of the 20th century, to eugenicist claims made in the name of the fiction of racial superiority.  Some of these missteps held no harm beyond leading scientists astray for a while (sometimes they even helped organize scientific inquiry), but others were pronounced with the full weight of scientific authority behind them, and people were harmed as a result.  Injustice flourished with the stamp of scientific approval.  Rather than speaking truth to power, science has spoken supposed truths alongside power, aiding the unjust status quo.

Because scientists wield an authority that is a kind of power, they had best be sure their claims are made carefully, with adequate justification and sufficient evidence already gleaned, particularly when results conform with popular ideologies.  Scientists must keep in mind that they may be wrong and that those who trust their authority may be harmed by accepting inaccurate but prematurely proclaimed scientific work.  And what counts as sufficient evidence is not just set by standards internal to science.  It should matter to scientists what the consequences of error across society are in a particular case.  The authority of science that moves society to act should be taken into account before scientific claims are made.

Even if science produced only truth, if empirical uncertainty were avoidable, science is not always an instrument of justice.  Science can do harm when it gets things right too.  A poignant example illustrates this point.  Scientists in Australia have developed a laser based technique for uranium enrichment.  While this technique will make the enrichment of uranium for nuclear power plants more efficient, it will also make the enrichment of uranium for nuclear weapons easier to hide.  Thus, the new technique comes with serious nuclear weapons proliferation risks.  It is no surprise that a technology that makes it easier to perform uranium enrichment increases the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation—anyone in the field knows this, and understands the attendant risks.  Now that the knowledge has been generated, we are facing the problem of keeping it classified, keeping the details of the knowledge secret.  Given the past history of the leaking and spreading of nuclear secrets, it seems doubtful we will be successful.  A very dangerous world looms before us.

What is the correct moral assessment of this example?  Using the rubric from St. Bernard, no one is edified by this scientific work.  The knowledge was produced for all the wrong reasons, and with little apparent regard for accompanying risks.  The scientists who completed the work cannot claim responsibility for the technological success and avoid the responsibility for the ills that are likely to follow.  Both are foreseeable, and because we are responsible for both what we intend and what we do not, limited by what we can foresee and prevent, the price of freedom is clear.   Scientists cannot hide behind their pure curiosity as an excuse for producing knowledge that will, in all likelihood, harm the innocent or concentrate power.  If they can foresee it, they are responsible for it, and they proceed in their choices with that burden.

Such cautionary tales should not discourage scientists from speaking unpopular truths.  While science can produce nightmares through both truth and error, science can also be transformative.  At its best, science speaks essential truth, clearly and without fear, to power (economic, political, social), even when power does not want to hear what science has to say.  It tells us things we may prefer were not true (e.g. that our widely used refridgerents are damaging the stratospheric ozone layer), but that nevertheless we need to know.  This is the source of the authority of science, its courage to see the world with the clearest eyes a community can manage.  Its authority rests on its empirical stance, its willingness to let issues be decided first and foremost by evidence and reason, not preference or ideology.  This freedom from capture by the usual political powers allows it to speak truth to power and become its own power.  Science’s power rests on this critical capacity, this openness to evidence and argument, that the moral precepts of the scientific community aim to further and protect.  We know now that its practice requires a diversity of voices speaking and being heard in open forums of debate.

This freedom from capture does not mean, however, that it is morally acceptable to pursue every curiosity or to pursue obviously dangerous knowledge just because one can.   Having complete freedom and no responsibility for the projects one pursues is not central to the critical capacity at the seat of science, and is an anathema to the society in which science functions.  Scientists are powerful actors and bear the burden of responsibility for their choices, including which science to do.

The power of science is thus directed, not neutral.   The choices made by men and women doing science shape the course of science, either in the service of justice and the good, or not.  If left unreflected upon, science will most likely serve the already powerful. New knowledge and technologies tend to go to the powerful first, where they can exacerbate inequalities and thus serve the end of injustice.  If a scientist develops knowledge and accompanying technologies, the scientist needs to be concerned with who will get to use these technologies and whether they will help humanity or harm it.  To attempt to avoid this problem by saying– “It is not my problem, I just produce knowledge.  How it is used is up to society”– is a bankrupt attempt to avoid the burden of responsibility for what one creates.  The scientist must think—who will benefit from this research?  What ends will the truths serve?  Am I serving the interests of humanity or am I merely serving the interests of the powerful?

What we must remember, what his Excellency is reminding us, is that the knowledge science produces is a form of power (which is why science has the capacity to speak to power).  Science can provide new ways to act in the world, productively or destructively. It can alter the way we understand ourselves and the world.  And it can serve the interests of the many or the few. In a world run by the powerful, the scientist should count herself among that elite.  With great power comes great responsibility.

Science is not a truth production machine.  It is a human endeavor, flawed and occasionally blind to its flaws.  Yet it is the best tool we have for understanding the nature of our world.  As such, science wields important authority and critical power, and can do both harm and good, amplified across the world.

Editor’s note: Monsignor Sorondo’s Powerpoint presentation and a link to download a pdf of his talk can be found here; a video interview with the Monsignor can be found here; and a blog commentary on the Monsignor’s talk can be found in The Observatory.  A pdf of Heather Douglas’ remarks above can be found here: Heather Douglas remarks The remarks of the second respondent, Carl Mitcham, can be found here: Carl Mitcham remarks

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