Saturday, December 06, 2008

Eat your "is" and have your "ought" too

What gives scientific knowledge its authority? Harvard historian Steven Shapin addresses the question in his new book The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.

He quotes Einstein: "The concepts which [science] uses to build up its coherent systems are not expressing emotions. For the scientist, there is only "being," but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil, no goal. As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: 'Thou shalt not lie.'"

Which is to say, in science there is a strict separation of "is" and "ought."

The authority of science as a body of knowledge about the world rests on the idea that the "is" is paramount. The moral character of the scientist is irrelevant. The social circumstances of discovery are irrelevant. "Being" is all.

Ironically, the authority of science is made suspect by this same disengagement from "ought."

And so the public is conflicted -- impressed by the obvious successes of science, but ready to ignore the "is" when it comes into apparent contradiction with "oughts" -- religious doctrines, for example.

Shapin's book explores this theme within the contexts of entrepeneurial, academic and governmental science. There is more "ought" in the mix than scientists or the public generally concede, he says.

While there may indeed be a lot of "ought" in the funding and adminstration of scientific research, at the end of the day the "is" is paramount. Or so we like to believe.

All of which may be academic as far as the general public is concerned. The authority of science will continue to be revered for its ability to generate antibiotics, iPods, and ever-higher-speed WiFi environments. And the authority of science will be ignored whenever it conflicts with less "is-ish" avenues to "truth."