Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Separation of Science and State

David S. Oderberg, Ph.D., in The San Francisco Chronicle expresses concern over the state of scientists doing 'science' in the modern world.

"In our secular, post-religious society, the figure of the cassock-clad priest has been replaced by that of the white-coated scientist. Dispensing wisdom from the laboratory -- the secular sanctuary -- his every word is awaited breathlessly by a world thirsting for knowledge."...

..."It's all very well having secular shamans, but when they're caught cooking the holy books once too often, the faithful start to get worried. Scientific fraud, like that perpetrated by South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, is not new. Newton did it; Dalton did it; even Sigmund Freud did it. In more recent times, IQ researcher Sir Cyril Burt (wanting to show in his studies of twins than genetics trumped environment) committed fraud, as did Australian gynecologist William McBride (he of thalidomide fame)."...

..."Some scientists fudge data; others omit inconvenient evidence; yet others misrepresent the evidence they do have, obtaining levels of precision discordant with what may reasonably be expected from frequently messy experimentation with its many variables. Some scientists do all of this and more. How rare cheating is in science is hard to answer."...

..."In her recent op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Professor Laurie Zoloth, wringing her hands in anguish, appealed to the spirit of Immanuel Kant in her plea for a "truthful narrative" from scientists. Yet she should realize that Kant himself thought we could never know how things really were, and that for humans truth lay, to put it crudely, "in the head." If calling up the ghost of a skeptic (albeit a subtle one) such as Kant -- one of the fathers of that tarnished project called the Enlightenment -- is the best we can hope for, what chance is there that scientists will forget their prizes and the mammoth paychecks dangled in front of their eyes?"

"It may be inviting poison e-mails to say it, but I venture to suggest that contemporary science is now so corrupted by the lust for loot and glory that nothing less than root-and-branch reform can save it. For a start, although I distance myself wholly from his anti-rationalism and methodological anarchy, I share the late philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend's demand for a separation of science and state, or at the very least a radical curtailment of public financial sponsorship of scientific research. How could the millions thrown at scientists be anything other than a veritable inducement to misconduct? When you combine it with the innumerable honors and awards that await the next would-be secular savior of humanity, one wonders that fraud is not even more common than it appears to be."...

..."It would be an act of utter folly and of contempt for honesty and integrity were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's beloved California Institute for Regenerative Medicine now to go ahead. Were a bishop to be caught doctoring the Gospels, I doubt any scientists would be rushing to approve the Church's latest request for help to build a new cathedral. Why it should be any different for the secular bishops of science is difficult to discern."


Science is a valuable tool, but humans will be humans. The utopian promises that science proclaimed in the early and mid 20th Century have failed to materialize. (I can remember studying the sociological problems that would be caused by the overabundance of leisure time produced by science and technology through its miraculous problem solving abilities.) The pressures to 'publish or perish', and the competition for reputation and research dollars have given venue for much demonstration of the shady side of human nature.

Science is a valuable tool, but not a god, and scientists make poor priests. Science can be used to improve the external environment, but not to improve the internal aspects of human nature.

Ideologues often wield it in inappropriate ways in attempt to assert their influence and power over society. The result has been a that culture loses its depth and weakens. The situation may be reversable, but not by science or scientists. The first step is to recognize the finite nature of science and not revere its fallible proclamations as the word of god.

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