Saturday, July 23, 2011

Further thoughts on activism in science

The philosophy of science, and of the technologies stemming from that science, assume that science is dispassionate, that there are irreducible laws of nature, and that science in itself has no morality. What this has come to mean is that in order to practice science and have any credibility in the community of science, the scientist should generally not speak out about the application of science to society (unless, of course, the science or technology has positive implications for the economy, which technology at least always seems to have).

Unfortunately, this view is flawed - science and technology are deeply moral. They both have massive implications for human thought and behaviour. Technologies are applied within the context of communities and the environment those communities exist in. Therefore, it is fallacious to think that the job of the scientist is done with the discovery of a theory, or the provision of data. In fact, that is where the job of the scientist begins. As I have mentioned in previous post, data do not speak for themselves, but are interpreted and internalised by different people differently. It is up to the scientists to maintain the integrity of the data, and to make sure that only the well-intentioned outcomes resulting from those data are pursued.

And so I wonder why I hear of only a few prominent scientists speaking up about what should be done socially given the data we have (1, 2).

Through irreducibility, science has come to distance itself from the context within which is it pursued. Distractions such as human emotion must be left far away from science. But once we know what the data can say, there must be an emotional response to the data. If this were a different time, I could maybe respect the role of the scientist as a dispassionate provider of data and theory. But things need to change here and now. So why not it begin with those that know the outcomes of human behaviour?

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