Wednesday, 2 June 2010

First Reith Lecture - a disappointment

In 1960, C P Snow delivered a lecture entitled "The moral un-neutrality of science".

In 2010, Martin Rees delivered the first of his Reith Lectures, entitled "The Scientific Citizen".

In comparison to the former, the latter is very disappointing, though in many respects the subject matter of the two lectures is the same. Read the two lectures - perhaps read C P Snow's lecture first - and make your own judgement.

C P Snow is willing to discuss the idea of truth, the idea that scientists are motivated by a search for the truth of things, a desire to know what is there; and that this constitutes a moral component at the heart of the scientific enterprise.
The desire to find the truth is itself a moral impulse, or at least contains a moral impulse.
He also highlights the moral problem faced by those scientists who, like many of his friends, worked on military projects of one type or another, or who, like himself, took on a scientific role in the Civil Service.
I can put the result in a sentence: I was hiding behind the institution, I was losing the power to say 'No'.
He also indicates another moral imperative in the life of the scientific community, one that arises from the particular knowledge that scientists might have, and their specific knowledge of the outcomes to which their work might be directed.
It throws upon scientists a direct and formal responsibility. It is not enough to say scientists have a responsibility as citizens. They have a much greater one than that, and one of a different kind. For scientists have a moral imperative to say what they know. ... It is a duty which seems to me to live in the moral nature of the scientific activity itself.
Like, C P Snow, Professor Rees addresses in his lecture the role of the scientist in relation to society as a whole. Though both lectures refer to science as a "self-correcting system" (Professor Rees qualifies the phrase by the word "generally", and we might read something of significance into that), they mean that in quite different ways. I don't think you will find the word "truth" anywhere in Professor Rees' lecture. In its stead, there are phrases like "Science is 'organised skepticism'" or the following, which suggests concensus as an epistemological principle for science:
... what's crucial in sifting error and validating scientific claims is open discussion.... The imperative for open-ness is a common thread through all the examples I've discussed. It ensures that any scientific concensus that emerges is robust and firmly grounded.
Open discussion, understood as freedom of enquiry, is a clear pre-requisite for the anxiety to discover the truth that C P Snow sees in the scientific enterprise; but in itself it is not sufficient as an epistemological prinicple for the enterprise that is science. For Professor Rees, it is quite natural then to focus the attention of his lecture on the relationship between scientists and the media who are able to promote - or undermine - the concensus of the scientific community to the whole of society.

Professor Rees very subtly separates the scientific enterprise from any intrinsic ethical impulse:

.... political decisions are seldom purely scientific. The involve ethics, economis and social policies as well. And in domains beyond their special expertise, scientists speak just as citizens.
In some ways, Professor Rees' concluding paragraph is akin to C P Snow's view of the responsibility of scientists to "say what they know" - but I think it is also fundamentally different:
...professionals have special obligations to engage .... Scientists shouldn't be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. They should try to foster benign spin-offs - commercial or otherwise. And they should resist, as far as they can, dubious or threatening applications

There's a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what it's prudent or ethical actually to do - there are doors that science could open but which are best left closed. Everyone should engage with these choices but their efforts must be leveraged by 'scientific citizens' - scientists from all fields of expertise - engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media, and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science.
Because of its lack of reference to truth, does not Professor Rees offer us a picture of science that is ethically/morally pragmatic? And, at a time when religious belief is playing an increasingly significant part in society, where does Professor Rees offer any basis for a dialogue between science and religion?

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