Does science promote values?

In a remarkably frank and hard-hitting article (here) celebrating the return of real science to American politics, New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye contends that, contrary to received opinion, the practice of science does indeed promote values–precisely those values that help one do good science.

As he says:

“The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war. . . . .

“Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

“So the story goes.

“But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

“That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

“Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

“It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.”

Bravo! This is a level of frankness and contentiousness (and truthfulness!) that the Times rarely achieves when writing about science and its right-wing and religious critics.

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