Why technology is not science

Science and values

The confusion caused by identifying science and technology has prompted some science critics to attribute technological catastrophes to science itself. Deepak Chopra, for example, writes:1 “Science celebrates its triumphs, which are many, and excuses its catastrophes, which are also numerous–and growing. The atomic bomb delivered us into an age of mass destruction that brings night terrors just to contemplate. The environment has been disastrously disrupted by emissions spewing from the machines that technology gives us to make life better. Yet supporters of science shrug off these threats as either side effects or failures of social policy. Morality, we are told, isn’t the responsibility of science.”[p. 5]

The same science-versus-technology confusion made by spiritualists like Chopra is also made by the academic social critics of science who dismiss the notion of “value-free science,” that is, a science that is free from morality and ethics. Thus, in the introduction of his book, Value-Free Science?, Robert Proctor writes:

Still we often hear that however foul its application, science itself is pure. Science may be political in its application, but not in its origin and structure. And certainly it is true that science and technology alone are hardly a threat to world peace. Politics and moralities stand behind our sciences and give them life; science can be used for good or evil. This is one sense of the “neutrality” of science – that science (or technology) “in itself” is neither good nor bad; that science may be used  or it may be abused.

Note how the two words “science” and “technology” come together. Although the author starts the paragraph with “science” alone, he immediately conjoins “technology” to it, and in the last sentence, he practically equates the two by using the parenthetical phrase “or technology.” This allows the author to shift the attention from science to technology and to cite numerous examples of its destructive (and certainly value-laden) application. The good or bad and use or abuse are already incorporated in technology. Nuclear physics is the science behind both the MRI of medicine and the bomb of the military. The latter two are technologies, and they are by no means “neutral:” MRI is good, bomb is bad. Any attachment of neutrality to technology opens the possibility of looking for something good in a nuclear bomb!

Proctor goes on to say:

Yet this supposed neutrality describes only the simplest technologies, the most abstract principles.  The seven simple machines, perhaps, or the rules of arithmetic, may be neutral in this sense.  But an abstract truth often conceals a concrete lie.  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Yet is it surprising that a society that surrounds itself with guns will use them? … Tools, we realize have alternative uses; the knife bought for cooking might be used for killing. Yet knives or levers are not what modern science-based technology is all about. A nuclear power plant, cruise missile, or linear accelerator can hardly be used for ends other than those for which they are designed. Science-based technologies are increasingly end-specific: the means constrain the ends; it is no longer easy to separate the origins of a tool from its intended use.  What does it mean to “abuse” a cruise missile or a neutron bomb?

Since these are typical assertions in the war against value-free science, I’ll analyze them in detail so that you can judge whether the quote implies a value-laden science. First let me correct the author in his favor and emphasize that even the simplest machines are value-laden, because they are built with a human need in mind.  A lever and a catapult are technologies that are based on the simplest science, arithmetic. Yet one is used to lift a boulder blocking the irrigation route of a village, and the other to hurl fire to kill the enemy. So, it is wrong to ascribe any neutrality to even the simplest machines. The neutrality should correctly be ascribed to the science (arithmetic or algebra) behind the technology and not to the technology itself.

  1. Chopra, D. and Mlodinow, L. War of the Worldviews, Harmony Books, NY 2011.

7 thoughts on “Why technology is not science”

  1. Would “Computer Science” qualify as “Science”? I was wondering what would be the material in computer science. Especially when the inquiry is about algorithms, ways of computation and so on. Is it just Mathematics?

    1. Computer science is an extension of mathematics. And mathematics is not science, it is the language of science. It is the language in which theoretical physics, for example, is spoken. So, I would say that computer science is more of a language than science.

      1. I would say that mathematics (and thus computer science) is more of a science than it is not. It does differ in that it uses “proof” instead of “evidence”, but informally, it often starts with evidence. The domains are certainly different, one being real, and the other imaginary (abstract), but both demand the same reasoning. Maybe it is best to say that CS is Math and leave it at that, rather than saying that math is a language.

  2. Sadri, when you say “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way…” you are making people who were motivated to understand technological developments into physicists.
    But many of them were in fact engineers. Many of the founders of thermodynamics were engineers, such as Sadi Carnot who studied military engineering. Josiah Willard Gibbs was awarded the first American PhD in engineering “On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing”. There are a number of other great names that I could cite. So the growth of science and technology and their interactions are more intertwined than you write in the paragraph above. When after quantum mechanics was developed, you know that physicists dropped the study of continuum mechanics and aerodynamics and after that these fields developed mostly at the hands of people whose academic departments were in various branches of engineering (and applied mathematics mainly in the Great Britain). Think of people such as Ludwig Prandtl, Theodore von Karman, Stephen Timoshenko, Keith Stewartson, James Lighhill and others.

    1. Stan, I am talking about science and technology, not scientists and engineers. There is a huge difference. As you rightly point out, sometimes science comes from engineers (I can add to your list , the most theoretical of all physicists, Paul Dirac, who was an electrical engineer as an undergraduate). This distinction becomes less and less prominent as we move to the beginning of any discipline in physics. Gilbert was a physician! But he started the science of electromagnetism. Sadi Carnot was an army engineer, as you mention, but he started the science of thermodynamics. While the messenger may have varied background, the message gets detached from him, once it becomes science.

      1. Sadri, Your statement, “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. ”

        Your statement clearly identifies as physicist as the originators of the ideas, and I pointed out that many of them were engineers. I

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