Science and moral certainty

The success of modern science has had a powerful effect on the moral imagination.  A number of nineteenth-century French thinkers, calling themselves Positivists, believed that the application of the scientific method to society would result in moral perfection, and the end of political conflict.  In the Positivist utopia, a person’s salary or the welfare budget could be determined in an objectively correct manner, like the distance between the earth and the sun.

Today, the heirs to Positivism in the blogosphere describe themselves as the “reality-based community,” which they are careful to distinguish from “faith-based” or religious-minded bloggers.

The difference is more apparent than real.  Those who moralize from either science or religion seek to satisfy the same abiding human need:  the wish for moral certainty.  Both camps depend largely on faith, but that’s not a criticism –  it’s a necessity.

The problem with reality is that it’s messy.  As every fisherman knows, one really never goes into the same river twice, nor are there two identical cases of the measles.  The genius of science is to discard most of reality in the construction of stable models, which on occasion allow us to manipulate reality.

There will never be a scientific model of morality.  To think otherwise is to misunderstand the function of science, to allow science’s tremendous achievements and vast prestige to hypnotize us into something like superstitious awe.  We would ask a compass to tell us north or south, not right or wrong; we would ask a weapon to protect our bodies, not our moral characters.  In a highly simplified and structured way, science defines reality.  It sets the scene for the moral drama, but it has no part to play in the action itself, or in the motives and values of the actors.

The relationship between reality and morality is messy and unstable, like reality itself.  But morality’s hold on an individual always flows from emotion, not science:  for this reason, neither the religious-minded nor the reality-based will allow science to challenge their fundamental values.

The conflict between science and religion, which goes back generations, is exemplified today by the sound and fury surrounding “creative design.”  Only slightly less well-known is the political punishment meted out by the reality-minded to the president of Harvard, who casually referenced scientific findings that suggest some inequality between the sexes, and to Denmark’s “skeptical environmentalist” for mustering evidence that makes global warming seem different from Doomsday.

To people like the Positivists, the appeal of science derived largely from a flawed understanding of the scientific method, often viewed as a magic formula for solving problems of every kind.  In fact, we have a surprisingly weak grasp on how the scientific method works.  We know enough, though, to discard the version of the method I was taught in school:  observation, hypothesis, experimentation, law.

The most interesting insights into the scientific method have emphasized – again, surprisingly – the importance of tradition and faith.

Karl Popper observed that modern science is strongly tradition-bound, and could not endure otherwise.  In a universe of infinite possible problems and theories, the traditions of science point the young scientist to those few problems of great significance, recall failed solutions, and suggest new approaches that might conceivably succeed.  For science, as for society, tradition simplifies the way forward.

But what of faith?  St. Paul defined faith as “the evidence of things unseen,” which would seem to be the exact opposite of the scientific attitude.  Yet the most original component of that attitude is humility.  No modern scientist would claim to “see,” God-like, the infinite universe, or to approach each problem with only visible evidence in hand.  Tradition requires faith.  Institutions require faith.  Crucially, the advancement of new models (or “paradigms”) requires faith in things unseen and unexplained by such models.

Here is Thomas Kuhn on the subject:

“The man who embraces a paradigm in the early stages must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving.  He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the old paradigm has failed with a few.  A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.”

Even when science functions within its proper domain – the description of reality – certainty is unattainable.  To claim otherwise, in truth, would be unscientific.

For those who might doubt this proposition, I offer the following report from, charmingly titled “Most Scientific Papers Are Probably Wrong.”

Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece, says that small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems combine to make most research findings false. But even large, well-designed studies are not always right, meaning that scientists and the public have to be wary of reported findings

“We should accept that most research findings will be refuted. Some will be replicated and validated. The replication process is more important than the first discovery,” Ioannidis says. [. . .]

But Solomon Snyder, senior editor at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, US, says most working scientists understand the limitations of published research.

“When I read the literature, I’m not reading it to find proof like a textbook. I’m reading to get ideas. So even if something is wrong with the paper, if they have the kernel of a novel idea, that’s something to think about,” he says.

So we have a scientific study that questions the accuracy of most scientific studies.  How far can one push the principle of uncertainty?


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