February 20, 2017
It is commonplace to observe that science has lost its primacy among some people as the public knowledge that society uses for decision-making. The rigorous application of science and technology is accepted as socially useful as long as it is applied to marketable products, innovation, and elaboration of safe ideas. However, the application of more fundamental principles of science, even those that make these applications possible, are suspect to many people of faith or convictions, even though they value the fruits.
The result is not a complete rejection of science but rather an adoption of a contingent way of thinking. For these people, the thought process starts from a place different from where the idea came: The genome is separated from evolutionary biology, the fossil record is experienced as a test of faith, and climate change is redefined as weather instability. Deductive thought process is cut off from premises. Causes are not examined too closely. Explanatory science is reduced to phenomenology.
Science literacy, by itself, will not change this form of contingent thinking, because the fundamental problem is not ignorance. Contingent thinking about science arises from a moral crisis. Our society pits wisdom received from trusted sources, carrying the certainty of moral authority, against difficult, uncertain, tentative, dense, arcane, interpretations of the material world offered by science. Liberal democracies place responsibility on the citizen for deciding what is true, at least for the purpose of the decision. Scientific knowledge about everything that matters is beyond the capacity of any individual and in science is necessarily a collective undertaking. Faith and moral teaching, on the other hand, are available to all and do not even require comprehension, if one simply believes.
Criticism of values-based thinking will not advance the scientific enterprise. The fastest way to harden an adversary and the surest way to wander into hypocrisy is to attack an adversary’s beliefs. After all, science exercises its own form of contingent thinking: No theory is final, and every explanation is subject to falsification and elaboration. Science also rests on a form of authority, derived from consensus among the informed scientific community.
Science education will not solve the root problem, which involves particular values. In values, however, there may be room for reconciliation. Faith and moral purpose have many values. Science has but one: the primacy of demonstrable truth. This value constitutes a moral compass within science, a secular lodestone that binds every scientist in the same mission.
Science and technology empower values by guiding action on things about which we can agree matter, such as health, decent living conditions, and the proper use of power. Science cannot address conscience, values beyond demonstrable truth, and compassion. It can only fulfill or thwart them. But social and moral empowerment begins with demonstrable truth, and that is the core value of science.
Tee L. Guidotti
Sigma Xi President
This was originally published in the Sigma Xi Today section of American Scientist's March–April 2017 issue.