Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

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


Mark, what you think of these popular depictions of science? Are they a distortion of science, or do they reflect society’s continuing fascination with the subject ?

Kingwell: Let me take just part of that question. First of all we have to distinguish between science and technology. When we start talking about cultural reception of technology, what we observe is bipolar disorder; which is to say our culture is shot through with combinations, usually unstable, of technophilia, and tehnophobia.

Any popular cultural example that you care to mention could be teased apart to show that.

In fact, one of the things that I was concerned to do in some recent work of mine would precisely demonstrate that. This was part of what I was referring to in the combination of fear and worship which science more generally calls out from cultural responses. So I don’t think it’s a question that we used to fear it and now we worship it, I think we fear and worship it simultaneously and I think we are on the whole technophiles and technophobes simultaneously.

Until we understand that about ourselves, we won’t get a clearer sense of how our attitudes play back into the practices of science.

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You brought up realism and nominalism. It was great that you did that, because the topic was laying hidden after the previous lectures. Briefly, I wanted to ask what your position was on the whole realism and materialism debate?

I think there has been a lot of talk, not necessarily here today, but, about science having led to nihilism in the areas of ethics and human destiny. Do you think it is science alone that is responsible or is it realist, reductionist interpretation of science that is to blame?

Kingwell: A professor I had in graduate school in Scotland, once described himself as a reluctant unbeliever. He had been a minister in the Church of Scotland and turned to philosophy when he lost his faith.

I am a reluctant anti-realist. That is to say I wish it were the case that realism were valid. But I cannot believe that it is. That is my short answer to that.

We could talk for hours about the nihilism question. I would be more interested to hear more about this from my colleagues because I think nihilism is only a danger in this quarter if science, as it were, goes drastically off the rails. That is, it is only seen to be a possible implication of scientific practice that it leads to nihilism if it refuses to see its imbeddedness in value in the first place.

I think that is what we have been fighting against, those of us who objected to the characterization of neutrality. I don’t believe that’s what the panelist from this morning meant, but I think that at least that science is popularly conceived. If it is seen as value neutral, that is when its also seen as leading to nihilism.

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I am, like Eve, a science journalist and I am a science geek!

Over the course of the number of years that I have been doing this job, I have become very interested in the public understanding of science and to what extent the public is responsible for understanding science.

We have been talking about public in the abstract sense of this what people think and this is how they pick it up. But, what is the onus on them to actually understand the truth about science and to understand who scientists really are and how they really work. What is the public responsibility to understand science?

Also, as we cover science better and more, what is that going to do to the public trust in science? I am not sure that better coverage and better understanding of science is going to increase the trust we have in science.

Savory: That is the problem. That is really what I agonize myself. Is it our responsibility? Is it the scientists?

Clearly the scientists aren’t reaching out enough. Although I understand they are reaching out more. I agree we are doing a better job, but we are still doing a lousy job. I get really angry with the public. I really get angry at some of the mythical things they want to believe.

I was recently attacked at a dinner party because, when genetically modified organisms came up, I made the very mild comment I thought there might be some benefit. I was attacked by some friends, because it was simply out of the question and they didn’t want to know. They did not want me to explain what I knew of the science. They just knew it was bad, thank you and that was all they needed to know.

So, sure they have a responsibility, but how do we get around that. I have no idea.

Schabas: Will more knowledge help? I would like to think, yes, but having taught history and science for 15 years, I see that it is good for my students to know a bit more, but do they overcome their real fear of science that Eve has just aptly depicted? Not really. It is there.

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I am concerned about the global spread of religious fundamentalism and its attitude towards science, or disregard of science and disregard of global problems. Margaret, what can be done about it?

Schabas: That is a big question. It turns out that science is far less secular than we often are led to believe. We see it as a secularizing force and you can see that with the advent of modern science in the 17th century that in many ways it coincides with the proliferation in the West of dissenting groups, Protestantism and so forth. Yet, even in the late 19th century most of the leading physicists in Britain were deeply engaged in spiritual activities; going to seances, talking to people in the paranormal world; were deeply religious. A lot of that still persists into the 20th century.

In polls that have been taken in the United States of scientists say a very high percentage are religious. It may be at a very mild level, but nevertheless religious.

So, I don’t think it is right to think of science as completely secular at all. In many ways its heritage is quite sacred.

What about fundamentalists? I guess that is the extreme end of the religious views and I hesitate to make a prediction. I think we should recognize much more clearly how science is saturated with religious beliefs. I talked briefly about Newton’s reverence for Moses. But you could go on and on.

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I would just like to make the observation that there hasn’t been much attempt to distinguish scientists from science in any of this discussion. I think you get into the same problem with religion.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of our society these days, certainly in this part of the world, is that being in the attack mode carries a considerable premium. It isn’t anything new, but materialism has developed that to a degree which is much more serious and damaging than it was when we were fighting wars with sticks and stones.

What Eve was talking about is that being in strike mode is an advantage to a journalist and they, along with the rest of us, have that weakness.

I wonder if the philosophers would comment on where we are going to end up if we don’t learn how to get out of strike mode as a normal mode of operation in our society?

Kingwell: I would like to say something about that issue.

I introduced the solitude language and Eve expanded on it, I think, although I believe it is not a insuperable condition; it is difficult to transcend, partly because of language and the way language is constructed.

This does relate to the idea of attack mode.

Eve talked about some of the difficulties in presenting scientific results through the media to the public. But these too are languages, in which certain things are sayable and certain other things are not sayable.

It is not a question of choosing which story leads or whether it goes on front page or in the science section. It’s the very discourse in which a certain kind of claim is communicated.

Science is likewise. I think this is what I was trying to say about the nominalism-realism dispute. How a language develops and develops socially, culturally, historically determines what is sayable. It determines the things that can be raised as problems. This is why not even the language is neutral. It is not merely the claims made in the language that are laden with values. The language is laden with value because it makes certain things possible and certain other things not possible.

The question is, what are the possible negative effects of that? We could spin that story out for as long as we want. I think a more interesting question, is what can we do with an awareness of the way discourses limit us in this way.?

I think, this to me, is what philosophical reflection – and I don’t mean academic philosophical reflection – I just mean taking a step backward from our engagement in certain discourses and thinking about how they work. That is what that is for. Because only if we do that can we start thinking about how we might go beyond the limitations of the sayable in the media.

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How would our science be in the context of the native American tenet of doing everything with the idea of our next seven generations in mind? So how would that culture or that tenet in that culture affect science as we understand it and see it?

Kingwell: The duty to future generations is widely neglected in just about every aspect of our world. It was brought up this morning and I thought it was significant that it came so late in the discussion. To give you my quick answer. I think we, measured that way, are failing miserably.

Schabas: On the other hand, it seems to me, science is one of the sources for giving us the insight to the value of the future generations. If you really step out to the fullest point of objectivity in science, but recognize it as fully secular, the only meaning we have is to see ourselves as a species that is in a privileged position to know that we will be extinct someday.

We are the only species that is apprised of that knowledge of that evolutionary plight. So that gives us meaning and it gives us cause for concern and some sense it gives some value to future generations.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference