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January 18, 2008


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Great rhetorical flight, James! Now bring it back home and tell us what it means in the context of the presidential campaign.

Certainly our increasing tendency to abdicate moral agency, to grant Science the power to dictate social policy, goes hand-in-hand with our tendency to allow the Market to dictate economic policy. Friedman's "golden straightjacket" is another aspect of the general collapse of the distinction between "power" and "truth".

Now consider Obama. People respond to him in large part because he reawakens *a sense of* moral agency. He seems to be exhorting us to slough off our fatalism, climb out of our consumerist self-absorbed burrows, rediscover a sense of common purpose and summon the resolve to solve the problems facing us. He invites his listeners to be an active part of the political process, in contrast to Hillary, who gives us political solutions as wrapped up Christmas gifts.

So: does Obama represent the possibility of trascending the trap of Scientism, the possibility of re-learning the language of moral conviction? Or is he merely capitalizing on our nostalgia for the days of moral conviction? Might we be moving into an era in which politics can be once more an arena for articulating moral positions, rather than merely choosing the most expedient way to raise GDP?


Well, I've just come upon this site, and find the post very interesting. I'm a scientist with a strong interest in the relationships between the world of science and the rest of society.
Let me start by commenting on this part of the quoted passage:
"Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate."
I acknowledge that the claim is true about a lot of what science reports as facts, but in my mind the quote also betrays an all to easy tendency to see every pronouncement of science as an attempt, explicit or otherwise, to exercise moral authority, if we take moral authority as the capacity to argue convincingly for how the world should be, as contrasted with epistemic authority, the capacity to argue convincingly about how the world is.
Here is an example: From the world of science we have something approaching a universal consensus that human activity is causing a change in the global climate. This I would take to be an exercise of epistemic authority. Who better to tell us what is happening to the physical world we live in? The meaning of those facts, if we accept them,implicates questions of what changes will occur to the global climate, and what those changes could mean for human culture and welfare generally. Clearly, a lot of new thought, will go into analyzing those questions, some of them of a scientific nature and some of a moral, political and social nature. Here science can and should continue to exercise an epistemic authority, while at the same time it has more limited grounds for saying what should be done; that is, to exercise some degree of moral authority. Yet no one would deny that science might be able to say on the grounds of its epistemic authority that a particular set of mitigation strategies is better than some other. To argue that science, having delivered the "facts" should no longer be a part of the process of dealing with the consequences of global warming, or that it should not be continuously involved in the scientific analysis of the likely consequences of whatever policy directions are advocated, is to create an artificial and unfortunate dichotomous relationship between science and other aspects of society.
This is but one example of the ways in which science is inextricably involved in society's affairs in ways that affect all the other parts of modern social life. In a different way, science might come into conflict with some other source of authority such as religion, as has happened on many occasions over the history of western science, beginning well before Galileo. Some would like to think of these encounters as incursions of science into moral or philosophical territory where it does not belong. But the age of the earth, or the biological processes that constitute human conception are not matters of morality or philosophy. Yes,science can seem very threatening, but that happens because it is not an easy matter to bring one's understanding of how the physical world works into a cultural outlook that may not be reconcilable with that new understanding.

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Science and technology today can not be separated because one complements the other and can not work independently. Between the two branches can help to solve their own problems.

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