Sunday, September 29, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Value Free Science?

What does it mean that science is supposed to be value free? Do you agree? Why or why not? Apply the theory of value free science to contemporary-issues such as cloning and genetic engineering

The entire point of that branch of philosophy which we now call science and was formerly referred to as natural philosophy is that it is supposed to be entirely objective. In this case the word objective means that science deals only with facts which can be proven to be true through repeated experimentation. In its purest form, there is no room for opinion or emotion in science. Ideally, science should deal only with that which can be shown to be true and proven to be true no matter what your beliefs or opinions may be.

Yet, many scientists consider their highly subjective emotions to be essential to their understanding of science. Consider a quote from the man that many consider the greatest scientist since Newton.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
— Albert Einstein
'The World As I See It', Forum and Century Oct 1930

So, Einstein felt that science without emotion was pointless. The problem with the idealized, only the facts attitude is that science can only be practiced by human beings. We humans are emotional animals. It is impossible to imagine a scientist who is pure intellect and no emotion, unless he's from planet Vulcan. We humans just can't do that.

However, these emotions must not be allowed to interfere with the collection or analysis of data. After all, the entire point of science is that it is objective. If it is not repeatable through experimentation, if it is not falsifiable, then it is not science.

Falsifiable is a very important word in US courtrooms today. It means that if the facts prove you wrong, a true scientific attitude requires you to change your opinion no matter how emotionally painful you find that to be. Technically, science considers nothing to be proven absolutely. Everything is falsifiable if someone can find the objective evidence to prove that it is false.

Popper is a philosopher of science. He popularized the concept of falsifiability. The reason creation science is not taught in our science classes is that it is not falsifiable. That is, no amount of evidence will ever make a believer in creationism change his mind. His belief is faith-based, not fact-based. Therefore creation science is not science at all. It is religion.

This is an important concept. Science must deal with facts. We humans are emotional, and so emotion plays a role in our scientific work. However, the difference between science and religion is that in science everything can be tested, must be tested, and you are supposed to surrender any beliefs which are proven to be false by such testing.

This applies directly to the issues of cloning and genetic engineering. While many scientists feel that we need to apply our ethical and emotional considerations and deciding what to allow or what to ban in these areas, the science is simply about facts. If science develops the ability to cloning a human being, something that we are not able to do today, that will simply be a scientific fact. It will be an ability that science has given us.

But the question of whether we should clone a person is a nonscientific question. It is entirely possible to have the knowledge which allows you to clone a person, and yet believe that would be immoral to do so. Science itself is simply a collection of knowledge. It is not good knowledge or bad knowledge. It is just factual. How we apply that knowledge is not a scientific question. It is a moral question.

The famous biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould referred to these two separate ways of knowing and deciding as two separate, but equal, magisteria. Science gave us the facts and the capabilities. It said nothing about right or wrong. The other magisterium, which would include philosophy, religion, and morals, allows us to decide what to do or not do with those skills.

We may not be able to clone, but we can do genetic engineering. There is a great deal of debate about whether this is moral or immoral. Many of the objections are based entirely on fear. Things could go wrong, therefore we should not do this at all. The problem with this concept is that it does not allow for the good which can also come from careful application of the technology. There are genetically modified crops available today which are banned by certain African governments. Both in Africa and in Europe there's great fear of genetically modified crops Or, GMO's, genetically modified organisms.

The problem is, these banned crops could reduce starvation significantly. For example, there is a GMO rice called golden rice which provides enough vitamin a to prevent thousands pf children from going blind every year. It is banned in the areas which most desperately need to use it. The result is that the children go blind. The World Health Organization report from 2005 stated that, "190 million children and 19 million pregnant women, in 122 countries, were estimated to be affected by VAD." That's vitamin a deficiency.

Golden rice would not end this problem, but it would significantly reduce it.

I think it is clear that we must be careful about GMO's, genetically modified organisms, but being careful does not mean totally banning them either. As almost always, my position as one of balance. It is good to be cautiously afraid of these radical changes which could escape into the environment. On the other hand, it is not good to sentence many millions of people to lifelong suffering because we are so afraid that we cannot take reasonable precautions and proceed.

To conclude, science must be objective. It must be falsifiable. It must be based on experimentation and provable, repeatable experiments which demonstrate the facts. However, human emotion cannot be avoided. We must recognize it, embrace it, and apply it in a reasonable and balanced way to decide what we do with the facts.

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