The science of good and evil

February 21, 2005

The prestige of modern science is rightfully immense.  Any argument can be settled by agreeing that a proposition is “scientific.”  And why not?  The theoretical models of modern science have provided an astonishing bounty of practical results, from flying vehicles to life-saving medications.  It should not be surprising that, in our minds, science has assumed the authority once accorded to religion.  All our questions, we imagine, must have a “scientific” answer.

But can science tell us how to live?  It can study how we do live.  Much useful information has been accumulated by doing just that.  But suppose we ask:  is racial discrimination an evil practice?  Science, properly understood, has no answer.  We can research the DNA of different groups, and observe their practices, and compare them to one another – still and all, the question of evil, of right action, falls beyond the limits of science.

In fact, science, which we often consider the highest authority, has been a faithful servant to good and evil alike.  In her review of Richard Overy’s book on Hitler and Stalin, Anne Applebaum underlines the obsession with science and technology shared by both dictators.  Scientists have given us antibiotics, and saved millions of lives; scientists have given us the poison gas at Auschwitz, and taken the lives of innocents.

All of which leads to this column by Dick Taverne in the Guardian.  He observes that not only does science as a method not lead us to the good – the practitioning scientist doesn’t need to be a good person to do good science.  Here are Taverne’s conclusions:

But in the end motives are irrelevant to the validity of science. It does not matter if a scientist wants to help mankind, get a new grant, win a Nobel prize or increase the profits of her company. It does not matter whether a researcher works for Monsanto or for Greenpeace. Results are no more to be trusted if the researcher declares his values and confesses that he beats his wife, believes in God, or is an Arsenal supporter. What matters is that the work has been peer-reviewed, that the findings are reproducible and that they last. If they do, they are good science. If not, not. Science itself is value-free. There are objective truths in science. We can now regard it as a fact that the Earth goes rounds the sun and that Darwinism explains the evolution of species.

A look at the history of science makes it evident how irrelevant the values of scientists are. Newton’s passion for alchemy did not invalidate his discovery of the laws of gravitation. To quote Professor Fox of Rutger’s University: “How was it relevant to Mendel’s findings about peas that he was a white, European monk? They would have been just as valid if Mendel had been a Spanish-speaking, lesbian atheist.”

I’m not sure I agree with the proposition that science is entirely “value-free,” if only because that would mean that scientists practice their craft in a superhuman (or at least nonhuman) environment.  Science belongs among human activities:  as such, it observes the values of the scientist.  But many of Taverne’s points are valid and well taken.  Read the whole thing.