I want to say up front that I am pro-science. Our lives are better because of science. Science is a great tool. I count scientists among my friends.
But in the past few months I have seen (at least) two issues with how we rely on science.
First, we keep committing a logical fallacy when it comes to how we rely on science. I keep seeing – on Facebook, on CNN or Fox, USAToday and NYT – ‘science tells us’ or ‘science says’ or ‘according to science’. This is the fallacy of reification – “When an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event or physical entity — when an idea is treated as if had a real existence” (Logically Fallacious).
It’s a common way of writing/speaking in poetry: love will find you, nature speaks, etc. It is vivid and adds to the beauty of language. But, when used in an argument it becomes problematic. When we claim ‘science says’ we suggest that there is something concrete out there that has spoken. By doing so, we obscure the fact that it is actually scientists who have said “x”. And scientists are not, as much as they might try, perfectly and truly objective. As chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi demonstrated, scientists have commitments that make their work at least partially subjective. Scientists have political commitments as well as commitments to the their traditions, commitments that shape even the questions they ask of the data or the experiments they design.
This, I am sure, has been happening on both sides of the political divide. Some scientists are aligned with the right and their commitments lead them ‘x’, while other scientists aligned with the left are led by their commitments to conclude ‘y.’ This is happening, and we should be aware of it. We should say, “some scientists are concluding, based on the data they are looking at, you should wear a mask.”Or, “Some scientists are saying, based on their data, masks don’t help.” Scientists, discuss amongst yourselves. But, when we say ‘science says wear a mask’, then those who don’t are ‘ignoring science.’ Or, non-mask wearers look at those wearing a mask, they say ‘don’t they understand science…’ Not helpful.
I’m starting a movement. Stop reifying science. Or nature. Or history. Or…
Second big problem: we are forcing scientist to step out from science and into ethics, and we are treating them as ethicists. A scientist, as a scientist, can say ‘the data is telling us virus x is spreading among population q.’ But, when a scientist makes recommendations such as ‘we should open organization c’, or ‘we should not open organization c’, they are making value judgements. That’s the realm of ethics, not science.
So, when a scientist or group of scientists say, ‘we should open schools’, or ‘we should not open schools’, they are making value judgements and ethical statements. Obviously, scientists have opinions and can weigh in on ethical issues. But they should be clear and say ‘based on the science, my opinion is z’. Even better, be transparent about what values you attached to outcomes…what was the moral calculus you used? Or was it a gut feeling? Again, both sides of the issue are guilty of blurring science and ethics, and it’s troubling.