Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dennis Overbye on science and democracy

I think he overstates his case when he says, "Science and democracy have always been twins;" but I really liked the middle part of his article, where he defends science from "cultural and religious critics":

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.


  1. Anonymous said...

    The criticism of science/scientists in the article for not thinking about religion, values, ethics etc. is partly true but at the same time, the work of Templeton Foundation has to be highlighted in this area including the various Templeton Prizes and funding opportunities for study. I think many famous scientists have been funded by Templeton foundation and won the prizes too. And probably the author of the NYT article doesn't know the existence of the Science & Spirit magazine

  2. Anonymous said...

    Anthills may be natural, but that doesn't make them good.

    Also, that description doesn't address the criticisms the author himself raises. He argues that science teaches **some** values, but those are not the values people are complaining about.

    Any activity done by a group of people will teach some values -- drug smugglers, investment bankers, terrorists and pimps have value systems, which keep their activity going. Doesn't mean those values can replace the ones people care about.

    BTW, Templeton Foundation is a covert Christian lobby.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Maybe Templeton is a christian lobby but my point is that many western scientists are talking about religion. Here is another example -
    Beyond Science vs Religion

    If you look at the departments of many western univ there is an active dialog between religion/humanities department and the scientists but maybe in the more left/right leaning univs or liberal colleges.

  4. Anonymous said...

    I fall under the camp of the people (as the prof. in the article in the above comment) who believe that rigorous scientific enquiry requires democracy and openness in society.

    But the danger is that scientists addressing religious issues leads to cases such as these

    where established scientists publicly declare how specific religious beliefs (christianity) influences their science.

  5. Anonymous said...

    >rigorous scientific enquiry requires democracy and openness in society

    Not really. USSR had pretty good science going. So does China. German science flourished under Kaiser Wilhelm.

    The best religion-science dialogue is happening with Buddhism. And for good reason. The philosophical positions of Buddhism resonates very well with complex systems theory. And this synergy is exactly what Templeton is seeking to block.

    See here for one interesting initiative:

  6. Anonymous said...

    I don't know whether it is because of the Gita and the Bomb effect but many of these "nuclear physicists" ( e.g. Pervez Hoodbhoy ) too get involved with either religious or socio-political issuues.