Nicole Gugliucci has a fine post up about a common discussion-killer: “Stick to the science!” Debates about ethics and social issues can be deftly silenced by declaring that they’re out-of-bounds for science, because as we all know, science is objective and cold and uncaring.
I always want to ask, when I encounter those attitudes, whether they’ve read Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values. Because they should. It’s one of those books that gives equal weight to poetry and physics, and quotes Coleridge and Goethe alongside Faraday and Newton, and his entire point is that science is a human enterprise driven by human values, just as much as literature is.
The subject of this book is the evolution of contemporary values. My theme is that the values which we accept today as permanent and often as self-evident have grown out of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. The arts and the sciences have changed the values of the Middle Ages; and this change has been an enrichment, moving towards what makes us more deeply human.
This theme plainly outrages a widely held view of what science does. If, as many science only compiles an endless dictionary of facts, then it must be neutral (and neuter) as a machine is, any more than literature is; both are served by, they do not serve, the makers of their dictionaries.
It always baffles me when human beings pretend to have a god-like perspective on the absolute truth, which allows them to ignore the petty concerns of other human beings. Religion has mastered that property, but science can run a pretty close second, often.