Ethics of Science @ProfLisaJardine @TiffanyJenkins #Scientism

Interesting BBC R4 Point of View this morning by Lisa Jardine.

[Fuller text in BBC Magazine article.]

Based on the telling by her father (Jacob Bronowski) of the Leo Szillard story of the flash of inspiration that led him to patent the neutron chain reaction idea as a source of energy in the name of UK Admiralty, and the subsequent UK and US development and use of first nuclear bombs.

Szillard (and Einstein and Bronowski and many others in science) raised many ethical objections to the use of such weapons as their reality became more certain. (Aside – Many previous references in this blog to the Einstein letter and to Durrenmatt’s play “Die Physiker“. Szillard is topical again thanks to recent work by Graham Farmelo, whose previous work on Paul Dirac has also been covered here.)

But Lisa’s point was really this. Being told that story was valuable lesson in ethics associated with science, even though the complex chain of events and reasoning quoted by, and told of, Szillard, as any one of the many individuals involved, was objectively suspect and in need of selective interpretation as history – a convenient narrative with an agenda. But none-the-less valuable to her (and to me).

The point I add to this is that a major – and dangerous –  part of the problem is science conflating itself with many other domains associated with science, from basic philosophies of science and knowledge, to the technological exploitations of understanding scientific possibilities by the rest of humanity, of which science is a part but not the whole.

Science is not technology and the distinction matters – in the Szillard story, the subject was “patenting” the use of idea for its technological exploitation, not the idea itself. Furthermore – science is not humanity’s sole privileged access to knowledge, the distinction between the subset we call science and the whole of “rational” knowledge applicable to human decision-making, also matters. These distinctions matter because the ethics (and politics and economics) of best choices for humanity cannot be reduced to science alone. Not even (say) Anthropogenic Global Warming.

The use of science to solve the problems of and increase valuable possibilities for human society, both requires technology and involves value judgements – human value judgements in domains where science has no privileged view. Science is privileged in value-neutral domains, but not in domains where human values matter.

Science good; Scientism bad.

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