Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

When Science Meets Culture: What do we do with scientific knowledge?

MARGARET SCHABAS, Department of Philosophy, York University

I was going to start by making the argument about the divide between science and culture as having really commenced in a very profound way about a century ago.

But because of this morning’s discussion about sciences being ethically neutral I want to address some of those issues first.

Let me just go back to the questions this morning about facts and values.

There is a general view that never the twain shall meet; that there is a fact of the matter that water boils at 100%C and there is a value judgement, say, that all killing is bad or something of that sort.

These are really quite autonomous kinds of knowledge. Science, therefore, in so far as it tries to arrive at the facts about the world, is really separate from ethics, a branch of knowledge that tries to make some meaningful claims about human values and judgements.

But in the last 50 or so years, really after Hiroshima, it became apparent that scientists are not in some sense aethical, or out of the ethical net; that they have responsibilities and that the Platonic notion that pursuing the truth makes you a virtuous person could no longer be sustained.

So, really Hiroshima is the critical moment. Since then, people who have written on the subject of facts and values have really come to a different prospective. In the area of values, they have come to see that we can assimilate a lot of factual knowledge.

Say, for example, [in] the debate about abortion, one could maybe make some ethical headway by bringing to bear certain questions about the sentience of the fetus; certain questions about viability given the medical profession.

In other words you can begin to make some headway on long standing ethical questions because of the appeal to facts. So, in some sense, ethics has hardened itself. It has become more scientific.

The other side of is, we have come to see how value-laden science is. I will just give you a brief framework of that. There are what are called constitutive values. Values that you are in the very nature of doing science. Values mostly about methods.

For example, the direction that was taken since the 17th century, since Galileo maintained that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, to make science a mathematical pursuit. Aristotle has a lot of rich scientific insights, but no mathematics. It could have been the case that science continued in that direction, but it didn’t. That in itself is a constitutive value.

Those of you who have studies statistics know there are lots of valued judgements that go into making decisions about sample size, tolerable margins of error and so forth. There are lots of ways in which in its very essence science is value-laden. It is constitutively going to force judgements of that sort.

I will just touch briefly on the one that you could think of where science is outrightly biased. An example might the pursuit of phrenology in the early 19th century, when scientists – people recognized in the community of science – took up the study of brain size or basically the bone size.

You can see a lot of this as serving their goal of trying to establish the superiority of white males. That was something that was clear and you might think of some more recent cases, and I won’t mention a well known professor at [the University of] Western Ontario where you may see again outright biases that were brought to bear in the name of scientific research.

I think the most interesting areas are what are called contextual values. Values that are in some sense imperceptible at the time, but that we can see as historians of science that we can see that social and political views necessarily seep into scientific research.

The example I suggest to you, is the one of Darwin. Actually, quite ironically, it was Karl Marx who suggested that Darwin is just the capitalist economy written into the world of plants and animals. It is about Malthusian competition, the struggle for survival, the supply and demand mechanisms in the food chain, the entry and exit of firms if you think about it in the way in which species come to be. All the questions of efficiency that go back even to Aristotle, who maintained that nature does nothing in vain. Nature is fully efficient.

These are economic ideas.

I’m not going to suggest that the whole theory of evolution is wrong in its broad claims. But the mechanisms and the way we articulate the mechanisms of evolution are saturated with capitalist imagery, with imagery about marketplaces, about competition and so forth.

It is not that the kernel of truth is wrong, but the way in which we try to grasp that. The more we know about Darwin and his position; he was married to the Wedgewood family, he is from very well to do England. He knew a lot about economics in his time. You can see there that he is in many was a repository of those social values.

It is hard for us to see today how our science is that way, but the more you do the history of science, the more you see this played out again and again. We are in many ways going to embody the religious, social and political values of our time.

So, I just think it is important to get that framework in mind and see that, yes, science is valued laden to the core.

There is no way in which a scientist can say that they are out of the ethical net; that they are aethical, or that what they do is ethically neutral. All actions have consequences and all scientist are engaged in actions. So in essence again, they are necessarily involved in ethical issues.

To return to the question of science and culture.

I would hesitate to look forward, but I am very happy to look back, to make some sense of this difficult question. I won’t try to define science or culture. I am not sure that one can. I do think that they were more closely linked before the 20th century. We see a lot of critical points coming to the fore in the early 1900s.

I am primarily looking at the educated sectors of society, so in that sense my claim might be wrong. In absolute numbers it may well be the case that more people now know about both science and the humanities. We certainly have a very impressive post-war expansion of higher education, which would suggest people do have some versatility in both fields.

Notwithstanding all this education, I think if you go back to the 18th and 19th centuries and you look at the ways in which educated people engaged in both things like music and science.

You look at say the Parisian parlor displays of electricity. They were so exciting in the 1740s, electrifying 100 gendarmes for the royalty. You look at look at Constable’s wonderful paintings of cloudscapes, which one historian of science, Peter Galison, has shown were really important for developing the cloud chamber in physics. So here is an example where an artist has prompted an important development in physics.

Look at the widespread pursuit of natural history in Victorian England. You think of some of the novels you read where people were always going out collecting fossils or butterflies and trying to understand natural history. This was something that really was very prolific across the Western world in the 19th century.

There are many more examples of ways in which people who were learned, they not only played musical instruments, but really did science first hand. In that sense, it is very different than today, when our consumption of science is so passive. It really does consist of watching television shows or reading second hand accounts of science. So, in that way again, things were very different in a previous time.

Now why is this?

Well, the divide between science and culture has come about partly because of the professionalization of science. The actual English word scientist wasn’t coined until the 1830s. In many ways it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that you even had people who saw themselves as expert scientists, who really believed in the professionalization of science. So in that sense, again, the divide was created.

I think more importantly is the loss of common sense notions in science. Particularly in the physical sciences. This morning, Sir John Maddox, talked about string theory, special relativity. Who here can really understand the twin paradox, let alone begin to understand what it means to have a closed but infinite universe, or to understand string theory?

In many ways, we have lost a common sense access to our scientific theory. Our particle accelerators today and our space exploration programs involve astronomical sums of money that suggest that they are the counterparts to the cathedrals of the middle ages, generating results that mystify all but a few.

Another development one might think of, where again there is this divide, is the development of 12-tone music in the 1920s. Again, this is something that very few people can access, let alone enjoy.

Most people hear Berg or Schonberg and feel that their head hurts. We listen much more to 17th and 18th centuries music than to music of the 20th century.

So, in some sense, there are analogous divides that we in our learned culture consume products that really go back several centuries. I think the same is true of science. When you look at the way the media presents science, say the natural history shows, that they really precede the 20th century. The shows about animal behaviour, or butterflies or what have you are not about the work in molecular biology that is being carried out today.

There really is a huge temporal gap in the way in which we passively consume science, consume music, that links us to really a quite distant point in time.

The other thing that is important to realize is that science and technology were much more separate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of the critical inventions and innovations that launched the industrial revolution and the industrial era of the 19th century – say in textiles, transportation, metallurgy, and energy – were often undertaken by persons who had little schooling in the sciences.

Historians have argued that actually the cause effect path goes the other way. That actually it is the scientists who benefitted from the craftspeople who worked in metals, who worked on glass, that enabled us to construct things like good microscopes in the 19th century; that enabled us to isolate chemicals that happen to occur because of efforts to improve the bleaching of textiles. You see very little harnessing of scientific knowledge in the 18th century and nineteenth centuries into the development of industry.

It is only in the beginning of our century, particularly with the formation of the Bell Labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey, right at the turn of the century where you see people who wished to have technology develop purchasing the work of scientists. Bringing scientists to a place that has squash courts and looks a bit like an ivy league college and giving them a license to think – doing what we would now call research and development.

It is a very recent change in the history of science, where you have science being harnessed in the pursuit of technological ends. I am not saying there are not examples before 1900, but there is nothing on the scale of what we see in our century in terms of the close intimate links between science and technology.

Another factor that I really think has led us to be separate from all of this is that for the consumption of science again, one of the things that is so striking about it. The things that we see and read and the way that we absorb science is that we get this impression of the scientist as this impartial disinterested pursuer of the truth.

We don’t get a full picture of it and I’m very grateful, therefore. for the talks that we heard this morning and that we heard at lunch that admitted; these are people, that have all the human frailties that we know very well. We see that a lot of science has been put to rest. We see that often scientific claims do not live a long life. They are overturned and so forth. So there are lots of ways in which we need to recast the impression and the image that we have of science.

If you go back again, to the Enlightenment, to the 18th century, you can see so many examples of people who were very committed to social justice --say Voltaire or David Hume, who were very active in disseminating scientific research.

Voltaire and his mistress Madame de Chatelet were the first to translate Newton into French, and to try and to disseminate that knowledge. It is very important to realize that. There was an intimate link between those who

at the very forefront of cultural pursuits and those who really were keen to advance and understand the science of their time.

Eric also mentioned Goethe who did make some very important contributions in morphology and geology and optics as well. So that again is another case in point. Novalis is another good example.

The other way in which we consume science is to go to museums.

In the 19th century, a number of the major natural history museums were founded in London, Paris and New York. The efforts there were to collect all the specimens of the world and to put them out for the public to view and to enjoy.

All of those hopes have had to be put aside. It is just not feasible. There are just too many species. They didn’t yet know about the numerous insects. Well they did, but they didn’t have quite the conception that there might be 10 million of them they would have to classify.

In many ways the museums have taken on a very different veneer. There are more like department stores. You get on an escalator and you consume a small sampling. Again, by and large, you get a very distorted impression of the natural world. Their intentions were good, but by and large what happened with science museums [is that] they have had to become like Disney theme parks. They have had to find ways to engage the public and very much misrepresent the way in which science is pursued and developed.

Again it is usually a science that is a good two hundred years out of date. It is not about the science or research that is being done here and now.

What can we do about this? Is there any reason to go back to this time when science was more commonsensical, more accessible to the public in a genuine sense?

I don’t think so. I’m not inclined to think that science should be anything other than it is today. The sweeping counterfactual that, for example science might have been different had women been included in it, I don’t know that we have a good answer to that. I think that it is impossible to assess that claim. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t. I think it would just be what it is and that in many ways the history that we have, while it is contingent history, while it is path dependent history, the science really is there because it is much more determined by the cultural values and norms of the time than it is even by its participants. By the particular X, Y and Z who do the scientific work.

It is true that we think it is important that Newton was deeply religious or revered ancient knowledge. Newton, by the way, was so troubled that he had made the insights he did that he spent more effort going back to ancient texts to ascertain that Moses knew the inverse square law of gravitation than he did doing his own physics. He was just so in earnest of the importance the religious heritage that he felt ought to be in place.

That Einstein was a socialist with a tendency towards greater secularism is also important. I think in some ways again, it’s not Einstein, per se, its that at that point in time, we were in a more secular period and that of course is very much a product of the advent of modern science since the 17th century.

I think we can see all of these things. We can come to see that we embody many of the cultural and social norms and that this in many ways limits our ability to cut nature at its joints, to get to the essences of nature. If one could ever do such a thing.

But in our own century, I think as people have come to see, especially in physics which is so removed from every day understanding. I don’t think the fault necessarily lies in poor mathematics education. I think it has to do with the content of physics itself.

The divide is there and irretrievable. All of that has isolated itself from our culture and that is partly why we see some of the things John Polanyi talked about at lunch. This enormous war, the science wars that’s going on between those in the humanities and those in the sciences. You can’t understand string theory or even special relativity. Even the theory of evolution takes years to really come to terms with the notion of fitness and to understand mechanisms of that complexity.

Can we re-embrace science into mainstream culture? Perhaps, through better education. I’m skeptical that we can. I don’t think that any number of books that popularize science or even the way in which we might force people to take more science courses will make that any the lesser.

So, in that sense, what can science do for human destiny? I guess the hope is that it can continue on its way. It can own up to the fact that it is value-laden and perhaps come to understand and accept those values and make the most of them.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference