Philosophy and General Reading

Ethics: “Should We Stop Doing Science?”

It is not common for me to begin an essay this way. But the latest edition of New Scientist was released – “the ethics issue” – and it raised a few points of reflection, however informal and searching.

New Scientist is generally known for its unique combination of science reporting and communication, critical thinking and social consciousness. It is a science magazine, and within it one can usually expect intelligent debate and a sense of objectivity as the normative goal. There is also a place for opinion, and in this space of opinion there is a unique philosophical quadrant. I enjoy the magazine for numerous reasons, not least because I appreciate how at times it seeks to inspire scientifically informed public conversations and debate about the future of science and where we ought to go as a species. A really good example of this is the article on CRISPR.

But what inspires me today is the ethics issue. The idea of structuring a publication on ten or so moral dilemmas that currently face science is exciting, thought provoking and certainly also very important. These are timely debates, and we must consider them in detail with all their nuances and caveats. The final article – with the provocative title, “Stop Doing Science?” – is what I want to focus on in particular.

As a whole, it is an enjoyable read in spite of it being frustratingly short and simplistic. When skimming its paragraphs I was reminded that the publication’s philosophical engagements tend to be generally lacking in substance, offering only a mere glance of the issues with little to no nuance. There is often also little room for caveats and, let’s face it, there are always so many caveats.

When it comes to this article in particular, and perhaps also the entire issue on ethics, I was continually reminded of what I perceive as a common fallibility in analysis among those that engage with a critique of science. Namely that, whenever engaged with discussions on the ethical status of science, there is commonly a lack of differentiation between “science” and social mediation. Science – that is, scientific practice and knowledge – can easily become conflated with whatever errors in the form of its general social actualization. When publishing a column that provocatively asks “”Stop Doing Science?”, and which engages with opinions on the ethical status of science in relation to society, I would expect the author(s) to more deeply engage with the pressing point: the social and cultural realization of scientific outputs.

The New Scientist article opens as follows:

Science has the capacity to cure diseases, improve crop yields, reshape the planet and carry us into the cosmos, but is any of that worth the risks? The march of science has improved the lives of some, but not all. And it has inadvertently precipitated a problematic population explosion and an unfolding environmental catastrophe. […] Add to that the development of weapons of mass destruction, disgraceful research such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African Americans, and a few accidents such as the 1978 release of smallpox in Birmingham, UK, and perhaps the ethical thing to do would be to quit while we’re ahead.

The article goes on to cite a number of academics, including philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, whose comments on military science among other things are featured. “The biggest winner from science has been the military”. What I would like to do is raise the following question: perhaps the root of the issue does not have to do with “science” per se. Rather, maybe on the level of first principles what really is in question is a distinctly social and cultural problem. I am not naive enough to deny that the modern scientific endeavor hasn’t directly experienced moments of ethical shortcoming. There is very much a scientific ethics that must be adhered to, and there have been notable cases in which this ethics has been violated. But in the most famous examples commonly cited by anti-science philosophers, critics or ethicists, the social and cultural conditions within which scientific outputs are realized seems to get little attention. Instead, social misappropriation of the technical possibilities science creates becomes cause for a critique of the entire scientific endeavor.

Consider, for example, the advent of mass surveillance, which was one topic in the New Scientist issue on ethics. It may be that science created the possibility for mass surveillance technologies, but it also created the possibility for the original conception of the World Wide Web. The Web actually serves another good illustration, especially in light of the controversies around recent challenges against net neutrality. From my understanding the Web was originally very much a P2P concept that I’ve read was close to the idea of the digital commons, but many experts argue that increasing commodification has drastically altered the structure of how we think about and interact with the Web today.  In simple and terse terms, there are very different and even opposing examples of how our online information space might be conceived.

How scientific outputs and technology are realized has to do with a question of social or societal values as opposed what some appear to suggest in a so-called critique of “modern science”. Perhaps another timely example can be found in the emerging ethical tech movement, such as the Fairphone. I recently read an interesting article on how and why we need to think differently about e-waste, and within its list of facts was a particularly notable philosophical point: product lifetime is important, which contradicts such design and economic policies as planned obsolescence.

According to Apple, 84 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the iPhone 6s is related to manufacture of the phone—only 10 percent comes from usage. “This makes product lifetime the key determinant of overall environmental impact,” explains a 2015 report from the Green Alliance, a UK environmental think tank. “A device that lasts longer spreads its manufacturing impacts over a longer time period.” It’s not just carbon, either. Re-use markets ease the demand for cobalt and other materials, the mining of which is often harmful to human health and the environment.

One of the emerging solutions is the “right to repair” law, but the censuses among experts I’ve come across within the tech industry seems to also pertain to a more humble questioning of values. As the article states, in places like China and Ghana – countries which used to act as electronic wastebaskets – there is evidence that a powerful green economy is emerging. More generally, sustainability now also seems to be very much an emerging global phenomenon. What we’re seeing is a whole new world of ideas, powered by material science among other fields. When it comes to ethical tech, sustainability initiatives in material science, waste, mobility, city planning, agriculture, and the incredible growth and support in renewables (to name a few) would seem to project a transformation of values and a shift in how technology is socially realized.

If one is having difficulty accessing the meaning of what I am suggesting, think of medical science as an entry point. It is unanimously universally agreed that the development of penicillin is a positive thing for humanity. With that said, is it a result or direct consequence of science that an artificial paywall is constructed blocking people’s access to this vital antibiotic when in time of need? If one were to be overly simplistic, science can ultimately mean two things for human civilization: the realization of humanity’s potential or not. But a significant part of any potential realization – which would certainly be based on the positive social realization of scientific knowledge – largely pertains to the output of the social systemic function. In essence: it raises a question about the general status of human and social values.

Scientific outputs, like technology, would seem to undergo quite a lot of social mediation. Some of the most frontier theories and widely accepted philosophies of technology confirm this view. And with this mediation comes bias, orthodoxy, and even at times social and cultural irrationality.

One way to think of it is almost like a function. In mathematics, a function is a relation between a set of inputs and a set of outputs. I tend to see natural science as representing a unique epistemological space. In the case of this article, the function f is the social aspect of human life which comprises everything from culture and economy to how we organize society and its systems and the structure of our relationships. Within this sociocultural context or milieu, the status of our values comes into direct focus.

As a whole, I find this general line of thought to be interesting . There are entire collections of books, from science inspired literature to science fiction and philosophy, that dabble with a very similar set of observations. Some of the most well-known sociologists in history have all played with a similar analysis. Ultimately, I think it comes down to what extent the social function is an expression of common universal humanistic values. In a study on pathology that I did some time ago, I found that societies with a greater emphasis on such universal values – economic democracy, equality, justice, rights, egalitarianism, and so on – also socially actualized scientific and technological developments with a different sensibility than, for example, a society (democratic or not) based heavily on the military, religion, or other orthodoxies. In psychology we read quite regularly how societies based on fear tend to reproduce authoritarian outcomes, which can very widely on the scale.

Perhaps this is why, however much crossover there is in global society, each individual society is distinguishable according to the status of their core values. Some are more democratic than others just as some are more violent than others. Some have greater degrees of inequality, others prioritize policies to help foster equality and economic democracy. The same can also likely be said about the difference in emphasis on how scientific outputs and technological developments are realized. Think, for instance, of climate science, which tells us that the continued burning of fossil fuels is not sustainable. Some societies and cultures have responded positively, embracing the need for transformation when it comes to energy for example. Scotland is directly on path to becoming powered one-hundred percent by renewable energies. Others have remained stuck in a strange sort of economic orthodoxy, influenced, likely, by those with significant investment in fossil fuels.

In this case, science has highlighted possible alternatives and revealed a path in light of the facts about human caused climate change. The same could be said for numerous other issues, from material waste and plastic pollution to farming and agriculture. But scientific research and knowledge can only be suggestive when it comes to the social world outside of its scope. In other words, it is not “science” that typically comes into question here, but the social values outside of its domain.

Let us consider an example. That scientists split the atom is a remarkable discovery that could have unending positive implications, but its social realization also came with the advent of nuclear weapons. Conceptual conflation is a key notion here, when dissecting critiques of science. “Nuclear” is often perceived as a dirty word these days. People associate it with nuclear waste and nuclear armaments, but nuclear applications and research is an incredibly promising and important area without which the entire scope and potential future of human civilization would be drastically different (and not for the better). The possibility of nuclear fusion – unlimited clean energy that would forever solve humanity’s energy problems – is a distinct potential of 21st century nuclear science. It is also one of the most drastically underfunded areas of 21st century science. It is curious to wonder, what is this difference in priority between the continued funding of nuclear armament programmes or the continued funding of fossil fuel development and the lack of funding toward nuclear fusion research? What is that difference in emphasis when it comes to policy and politics? Nuclear science can be realized in the form of the atomic bomb, or in terms of a humanistic history that prioritizes its positives benefits and potentials.

I understand the present discussion is incredibly hand-wavy. It is admittedly informal and searching. But the question for me, is not “should we keep doing science?” but whether the current social and cultural formation – and its rationale – is fit for the realization of science and humanity’s potential. This might sound incredibly sci-fi in terms of message. Indeed, it is a question that could admittedly be taken directly from Star Trek. But the existence of military science offers another interesting site for reflection. It is likely that only a heavily invested military society would realize science via the conceptual universe and epistemological domain of its military institutions. And, generally, when one surveys each society today and their particular culture, this point would seem to have some validity. It is not the case that every society invests heavily in the military and in the development of military science. Others invest more in core scientific institutions, and in the promise of positive social philosophical and scientifically informed vision for their future, and this would seem reflected in the status of their core underlying values. It is therefore not necessarily the case that “the biggest winner from science has been the military”, as the caveat pertains to how such a development strictly refers to particular socio-historical and cultural contexts.

The modern scientific endeavour has, in my opinion, influenced the social-environmental function in positive ways. But scientific knowledge – or, as Steven Pinker calls it, the “scientific mindset” – does not determine the values of the social function. We see examples where there can be science in an irrational society. Science only happens to lend itself toward a certain social philosophical vision, and for that reason in such irrational social contexts there would seem an inevitable clash of values. For me, science advocates and appeals to a certain way of thinking, and thus helps foster a more rational society; but this is not its a priori aim. As Carl Sagan put it in The Demon-Haunted World:

There is much that science doesn’t understand, many mysteries still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light-years across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the case forever.

[…]

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

One might say that my above example of the social function is a silly way to think about the issue of ethics when it comes to the relation of science and society. Another might even suggest that the implications are a bit too atomistic. But it serves the practical purpose of illustrating the most fundamentally ethical question that we can possibly raise when it comes to the entire scope of possible moral dilemmas in science: whether scientific outputs can become entwined with irrational social forces of domination and orthodoxy? This is what I was expecting from a New Scientist issue dedicated to ethics and that dabbles in philosophy.

If we concede as a basic observation that natural science is not absolutely immune to getting caught up in socio-cultural developments, or, in another way, its outputs and the practice of those outputs are not immune, perhaps this is why some philosophers express suspicion toward the idea of a wholly “positive science” within an irrational social world. If natural science is a special epistemological domain, as I tend to see it being, which does possess a certain degree of autonomy, as attested to by the effectiveness of the scientific method, there are also many historical instances in which scientific outputs have become entwined with forces of domination or negative social orthodoxies. There is an undeniable objectivity to science, and it is simply wrong of critics to suggest that science is never value-free. These sorts of critiques conflate the doing of science with the social mediation of its output.

I’ve read many questionable strands of critique in recent time in relation to the industrial use of science and things like the systematic destruction of the natural environment. But, again, my gripe with these critics is that there isn’t sufficient differentiation. For these reasons I used quotations around the word “science” earlier in this essay, and in reference to the New Scientist article, because I think there needs to be sufficient differentiation between fields of science and their contextual dynamics and epistemological environments and finally also their outputs. Industrial science and the issues in relation to it are different than military science – as are the ethical debates – which also needs to be differentiated from what some call “basic” or genuine science. The status of science in a military or industrial setting is very different than in other scientific domains, as is widely understood given the complexity of ethical debates in and around modern industrial use of scientific practices. Genuine or wholesome science – however one wants to describe it – still has a place in many of our institutions, and in the practices of many scientific research facilities.

All of this goes without saying that one of the most widely accepted and understood theses is that “every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was conceived or created”, to whatever degree. Science is no different in the sense of the social use of science. Or, in other words, this is what some describe in a critique of “instrumental reason” – i.e., the instrumental and exploitative use of scientific research and outputs. Indeed, at least for me, the actual problem has more to do with the corporatization or economic reductionism, misuse and capitalization of the natural sciences, mostly outside of university and within “industry”, wherein such a dominant economistic epistemology is likely to be fostered and exercised. Scientists’ stories are everywhere on the internet to be read. In not wanting to participate in a particularly exploitative or destructive practices of a certain industry, scientists are often forced to because that’s their only ticket to obtain funding for what is still often very valuable research.

In the end, the question becomes one of social ethos. And maybe this is where the importance of philosophy also comes into focus?

This brings me to Steven Pinker’s assertion  regarding how, “scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings”. Pinker goes on to say, similar to what I alluded above in my function description: “the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values,” these facts at least “hem in the possibilities” (Pinker, 2013). Citing examples of the scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces, as well as the resultant undermining of barbaric practices such as human sacrifice and witch hunts, “the facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet” (Pinker, 2013).

We can add to this with what philosopher Andrew Feenberg said in a past interview: “We should all be able to approve the discovery of penicillin and electricity, regardless of politics. But at the same time progress is channelled by social forces. Thus penicillin is used in a medical system controlled by business, while electricity is generated by utilities committed to burning fossil fuels” (Feenberg, 2015). We can expand the point in countless directions, but the general thrust is how there needs to be objective critical thinking about the relationships between ideas, theoretical positions and scientific outputs and their social environment. Science inspires, in my opinion, a more reconciled and transformative vision of society; but it is the actual domain of culture, economy and politics – as well as their prevailing epistemology – that represents the range of possible forms in which scientific outputs might crystallize. The same can be said about technology or any other area of society, such as the medical sector.

I’ve had the opportunity to study and write on a lot of issues, crossing most if not all major disciplines. One conclusion I’ve reached, at least from my current vantage point, is that history teaches us that no positive human potential is safe from the realization of its opposite.  No human invention, no positive human capacity, is safe from the forces of pathology and irrationality. Humanity can equip itself with all the right tools: science, a well-developed education system, democratic ideas of social relations, among other progressive things based largely on core humanistic values. But if the social universe – to put it in terms of systems thinking, the systemic coordinates of the modern social and cultural universe – if they are not, in principle and in practice, based on egalitarian and emancipatory ideals for the benefit of the whole of humanity and the natural environment, it doesn’t matter what enlightened or emancipatory values a culture places in science, or in technology, or in law, or whatever. There will always be, to greater or lesser degree, a general tendency toward exploitation, misuse, conceptual distortion or, in a word, negative outputs. Or, in the very least, as we often witness it will be a constant struggle to ensure outputs are not not entwined with questionable economic orthodoxies,  bias and destructive worldviews.

In closing, if we bracket science for a moment and allow for it to be perceived in its full autonomy, more often than not such issues as military science no longer have to do with science itself, as a concept and as a thing, but with the social appropriation of scientific knowledge and practice. There is a very fine, if not subtle differentiation between science, at its roots, and the social exploitation or societal scope of scientific appropriations. Maybe this is what Pigliucci was alluding, when, as quoted in the article, he reflects: “Maybe, before questioning the relatively small amounts we spend on basic science, we should ask ourselves what on earth are we doing with such an oversized military?”

This is a nice way to close. As I currently see it, there appears to be a deep error in misplacing the social and thus also pathological influence on scientific outputs for a critique of the whole modern scientific enterprise, as though, for example, “science” directly proceeded to specify the outcome of the development of weapons of mass destruction; fracking; mountaintop removal; mass surveillance; or whatever else one might want to insert here.

On a philosophical note, Sagan also wrote in The Demon-Haunted World that “humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it”. An extension of this point is that in the irrational drive toward the absolute we also lose sight of the value of nuanced, objective critical thinking and rational debate. In that this essay presents a series of informal reflections without any certain conclusion, what is certainly clear is the complexity of the ethical issues we face. This will always be the case at the frontier of knowledge. The ethics issue of New Scientist does a nice job at seeking to inspire scientifically informed debates and discussions on a select list of topics. The recently published, A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna is another recent example, as it explores gene-editing and CRISPR, the positive possibilities immediately ahead of us, and potential future concerns. These are the sort of debates and considerations and engagements necessarily at the heart of a positive science inspired society, and long may they continue.

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