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