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January 28, 2009
Science and Its Values
Dennis Overbye had an essay in the science section of the New York Times yesterday, entitled "Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy". That gets across the spirit of it pretty well; it's one of those soaring-rhetoric pieces. It starts off with a gush of at-last-we-have-Obama, but what op-ed in the Times doesn't these days? We're going to be sweeping that stuff into piles and pulling it down out of the trees for months. (Before sending me an e-mail, keep in mind that I'd have a similar reaction no matter whose name was involved; I'm just not a person with high expectations from politicians).
But once he gets past the genuflections, I don't disagree with Overbye's main points. He says that science has a reputation of being totally results-oriented and value-neutral, but wants to point out that there are values involved:
"Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world."
We forget what a relatively recent and unusual thing it is, science. In most societies, over most of human history, there hasn't been much time or overhead for such a pursuit. And even when there has, most of the time the idea that you could interrogate Nature and get intelligible, reproducible answers would have seemed insane. Natural phenomena were thought to be either beyond human understanding, under the capricious control of the Gods, or impossible to put to any use. In retrospect, it seems to have taken so painfully long to get to the idea of controlled one-variable-at-a-time experimentation. Even the ancient Greeks, extraordinary in many respects, had a tendency to regard such things as beneath them.
So let's shed the politics and celebrate the qualities that Overbye's highlighting. Run good, strong, experiments. Run them right, think hard about the results, and don't be afraid of what they're telling you. That's what got us to where we are now, and what will take us on from here.
Update: a comment from Cosmic Variance.
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