Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Science Encodes Values

Chris Mooney served on the Yearly Kos NetRoots convention's science panel last week, and had this to say in his write-up of the event (emphasis mine):

[I]t has fallen to those of us who oppose the direction the country has been heading to simultaneously champion a way of thinking that would have averted so many blunders and disasters: empirical thinking. Scientific thinking. Critical thinking.

In other words, you might say that now more than ever before, we're finally waking up to the fact that the practices of science themselves encode a set of values -- a way of approaching the world, understanding it, and acting within it. At its core, it's a world view that is humble about what we know and don't know, flexible about what we do and don't decide to do, and open about admitting past mistakes and listening to contrary opinion. In short, it's the utter opposite of Bush's stubborn, inflexible, unwavering certainty about everything.

That bolded statement really spoke to me, because I think very often that science is looked at as a value-free exercise. But it's not. As Mooney says, because it has a certain kind of approach built right into it, it encodes certain values as part of its very substance. That's a powerful statement.

Science's core value of humility is often derided and looked upon as weakness by those who have certainty at the center of their approach to the world. But it's not a weakness to admit you might be wrong. It's instead the greatest kind of strength.

You see the same kind of split in the religious world as well, with some adherents telling us to be humble in the face of the Almighty and others arrogantly proclaiming that there is Only One True Way and they happen to know it, so get ready to be blasted if you oppose them!

It's a fundamentally human schism, one that runs through every movement and every belief system (yes, even rationalism or skepticism).

Arrogance versus humility.

Certainty versus doubt.

I expect that, like light and dark, both are somehow necessary for the universe to keep rolling along. But as for me, I'll always prefer the side that admits it could be wrong, that allows for the possibility of change, and that isn't afraid to stare the unknown in the face and ask "What are you?" And then deal with the consequences of getting an answer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my new job as a high school journalism teacher, I've got plans for a Socrates Cafe on Fridays. For 15 minutes or so, we'll take one of the questions from a Socrates Cafe meeting and discuss it. Young people who want to be writers who influence others (i.e., newspaper writers) should develop the habit of thinking deeply. Many have lost the ability to think deep thoughts (not to sound too much like a SNL skit) because they accept at face value what they read or hear, especially if it's diametrially opposed to what their parents believe. It's difficult, however, to stay open minded and even tougher to dig beyond the first few layers. There is a true art to critical thinking, and I will agree it's difficult to stare in the face of a totally different viewpoint and change. It's even harder to look at a different viewpoint and reaffirm the validity of one's original belief. However, I don't think the original thought or belief always has to change in order for one to have gone through the process of critical thinking. It can be bolstered and reaffirmed through critical thinking. But no matter the outcome, the exercise of thinking beyond the box and considering another possibility is a healthy, if often uncomfortable, one. If one examines one's beliefs openly and honestly and considers an alternative, critical thinking has taken place. We often overlook that just because someone's firm about their beliefs doesn't mean they did not go through extensive soul searching to get there. As you said, Jeff, it is in accepting that others have different beliefs -- even when presented with the same arguments and facts -- where understanding occurs. And sometimes, I don't throw out everything when presented with something new. Often, there's a nugget here or there that comes to pass as truth. But change and/or acceptance of one's original thoughts is never, ever easy. And if both sides can respect the other, then true understanding occurs. -- Denise