Science, the Individual, and Society

Science and Society

There is a relationship between science and wider society, for good or ill. How are we to understand this relationship? How ought we to conceive the relationship between science and society? What set of concepts should we employ (what is sometimes called the “conceptual framework”) to make sense of this relationship? Should our relationship to the question of the relation of science to society be a normative one, i.e., should we seek to change the relationship between science and society as a result of our understanding of this relationship? Or should we be content merely with a descriptive (i.e., a scientific) account of this relationship?

Asking fundamental questions in a naïve way

I am strongly of the mind that it is sometimes necessary to ask a fundamental question or questions in a thoroughly naïve way in order to transcend conventions that have become too deeply entrenched. So I want to try to ask some fundamental questions about the relation between science and society in a thoroughly naïve way, to see if this will offer any insights. What I will do, then, is to ask questions about science and its relation to social communities that will parallel traditional questions that have been asked about the relationship of individuals to political communities.

Richard Taylor, in his Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law: An Introduction to Political Philosophy, identified what he called “five fundamental questions of political philosophy,” which he delineated as follows:

“(1) What is the rational justification for the government of some men by others, in case any such justification exists? (2) What renders a particular governmental authority legitimate over those who live under under it? (3) What is a good government — that is, what is its proper end? (4) What is the proper extent of governmental authority over an individual? And (5) What is an individual’s duty in his role as citizen?”

I want to take these five fundamental questions of political philosophy and reformulate them as questions of science and society. The parallel reformulation is not perfect, but it is close enough to be suggestive — and suggestive is what I want, because I am looking for new insights and new perspectives, not the regurgitation of platitudes:

(1) What is the rational justification for scientific research by some men for others, in case any such justification exists? (2) What renders a particular scientific authority legitimate over those who live under under it? (3) What is a good scientific research — that is, what is its proper end? (4) What is the proper extent of scientific authority over an individual? And (5) What is an individual’s duty in his role as an intelligent being?

These questions, despite being rough reformulations of questions from political philosophy, are surprisingly subtle and complex. Let us discuss them one at a time.

What is the rational justification for scientific research by some individuals for others, in case any such justification exists?

I doubt anyone would hold that there is some rational justification that some individuals do science, and that that science benefits the wider community, including those that do not themselves engage in scientific research. This is simply the way that societies have evolved, because only a certain number of individuals are sufficiently interested in scientific questions to devote time to their research, while others choose to invest their time in other ways more consistent with their temperament an inclination. If this is a rational justification for a division of labor that means some do science and some do not, then our answer to the question is to be found in the diversity of human interests and talents.

Societies — at least, societies to date, as they have naturally occurred as a result of human populations, their growth, and the association of their members — consist of a number of individuals with diverse interests and talents. It would not make sense for everyone to do science, because most have no taste or talent for science. However, it could be argued that the same is true for the skills inculcated by the universal education programs that have become common in industrialized societies. Everyone is taught to read and write and to do basic mathematics, as well as a few other skills and some rote knowledge about history and the like, whether or not they have a taste or a talent for such matters. It could be argued, as indeed it was argued in the past, that education should be reserved for a few who have a taste and a talent for literacy.

Would it be possible to develop the system of universal education in industrialized societies to the point that every pupil is taught to do science (as opposed to merely learning about science), whether or not any given student has a talent or a taste for science, so that there would be no justification for scientific research to be pursued by some for the sake of others? Certainly, yes, this is possible, and I think that many would argue that this is the implicit aim of education, however imperfectly that aim is put into practice. One could say that something like this was behind C. P. Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

But the diversity of interest and ability in any population would inevitably mean that a Pareto distribution would appear, so that something like 20 percent of the population would be responsible for about 80 percent of the science that was done. In fact, the “natural” mixture that appears in our societies today is that far less than 20 percent of the population is involved in science, and they produce far more than 80 percent of the science that is done. Now, in an engineered society of the future, in which augmented human beings were given disproportionate scientific talents, we might approach closer to a classic Pareto distribution than we see at present, and enhanced individuals, even if they chose not to specialize in science, would be in a much better position to judge science on its merits, rather than in terms of the authority and legitimacy of those who have specialized in science.

The idea that “everyone is a scientist,” which we may regard as the parallel for scientific civilization of the priesthood of all believers — a very Protestant idea. Protestantism brought out of the individualism central to western civilization and raised it to a new eminence. But there are at least two ways to construe political individualism: the idea that the individual must take responsibility and contribute their individual talents to society (what we might call Periclean individualism, following Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ funeral oration), and the idea that the individual should follow their individual bent without concern for the community (but with the likelihood that the invisible hand of society will mean that individual contributions will have social benefits that were no part of the original individual bent). This is, in brief, the difference between conscious and intentional participation in society, and unconscious and passive participation.

The idea of “every man a scientist” is, at the same time, very much an Enlightenment idea, like the idea of “every man a soldier,” which was partially responsible for the disaster that was the First World War. Now, the idea of “every man a scientist” is not going to lead to any calamities (though it could help hamper the progress of science), but is it even desirable to present this as a social narrative, when it is narrative that can never be redeemed in practice, so that any such social narrative must show up its advocates either as fools or liars?

What renders a particular scientific authority legitimate over those who live under under it?

Ideally, the only justification for scientific authority that can make this authority legitimate is the science itself, the quality of its evidence, and the rigor of its arguments. If anyone has a problem with scientific authority they can, if they have the ability and the resources, investigate the question for themselves and determine whether or not nature is as it has been said to be. This brings us back to the idea of “every man a scientist” discussed in the previous section. In a scientific civilization in which every man is a scientist, science would wear its authority on its face: everything would understand how science is conducted, and if any science were questionable, this would soon come to light.

But we do not live in a properly scientific civilization, and, human beings being what they are, the ideal self-justification of science is rarely realized in practice. In actual practice, a few scientists acquire celebrity beyond the boundaries of their scientific competence, and are then celebrated by the public as special representatives of scientific knowledge. The best example of this is Einstein, who became a world-famous figure after relativity theory was confirmed by the 1919 eclipse. Before the scientific revolution, before the emergence of a nascent scientific civilization, this process also occurred, but usually with theologians and philosophers, not with scientists.

At the present state of our social development, the most that we can realistically hope for is that scientific superstars — today these would include Stephen Hawking (in the recent past, as he is now deceased, but he has been the most famous scientist of the past several decades), Richard Dawkins, and a few others — will be rightly celebrated by their colleagues for the quality of their scientific work, and that, when called upon to speak on matters outside their scientific competence, that they will exercise wisdom and restraint so as not to prejudice the work of those who are currently working in the field upon which they are expected to pronounce. Mostly this is true; sometimes it has not been true, and when it has not been true, it has made that scientific authority vested in scientific celebrities suspect, and suspect authority is authority deprived of authority, and so the counterfeit of the real thing.

But there is another form of scientific authority in the world today, and that is the authority of government and academia, which confers legitimacy through credentials, awards, recognition, and, not least by any means, funding. There are universities that grant degrees, and there are government bodies that grant licenses to practice in practical fields related to science (for example, getting a license to legally counsel others in psychological matters). What renders these governmental and academic scientific authorities legitimate authorities over those of us — really, all of us — who live under these regimes?

This is a large and difficult question. I believe those who constitute these institutions would probably claim that their institutional controls and their institutional vetting systems — systems like the defense of a doctoral dissertation, blind peer review, certainly scientific method itself, and perhaps even reports by students of the quality of their teaching — are sufficient grounds to make these institutions legitimate and trustworthy, and to render their actions legitimate. However, we know that, in actual practice, these official scientific institutions function more like political institutions than institutions of a purely disinterested intellectual kind, in which conformity, likability, and willingness to work hard on behalf of the institution constitute more certain reasons for advancement in that institution than singular brilliance in scientific research.

What is good scientific research — that is, what is its proper end?

This question is particularly complex, because it seems to point to two different things:

  1. What constitutes good scientific research, and
  2. What is the end (i.e., the aim) of scientific research.

Now, it could be argued that the end of scientific research is that good science is an end in itself, and this is true, for scientists. Basic research seeks no legitimation beyond satisfying its own rigorous standards, and indeed to insist upon basic research having some extrinsic aim would be inherently suspect, and it would probably also indicate bad science that had an end in view before the results of the research were in.

The end of scientific research can be construed in the spirit of pure inquiry to be the pursuit of scientific knowledge converging on the truth. However, more practical individuals are likely to see science as a means to the end of technological gadgets and economic growth. It would be unrealistic to expect any uniform convergence of social attitudes upon a single paradigm of the aim of science; it would be much more typical to expect certain populations within a society to break down upon demographic lines, with scholars tending to favor the pursuit of knowledge as the aim of science, and representatives of business and politics tending to favor a view of science that takes it as a means to more practical ends.

But even those scientists who value science as an end unto itself also likely believe that science is a social good in addition to being an end in itself, so that both in the form of basic research and applied research, both the knowledge produced is a good, and the impact of their knowledge on society — how this knowledge is put to practical use — is a good also. Thus good scientific research is both good science, as well as being good for the social community that has the benefit of this research. Science as an end in itself is in no sense sense excludes an appreciation for the social benefits of science; to insist that there is some idealistic exclusion would be to create a false dichotomy.

What is the proper extent of scientific authority over an individual?

The authority that scientific institutions have over individuals varies quite dramatically depending upon the individual, and this would seem to set the scientific community decisively apart from any political community. The legitimacy of a democratic political community is that the law is no respecter of persons and is impartially applied to all, regardless of status or position. We know that this is not true in actual practice, but it is the ideal nevertheless. In science, however, scientific institutions like universities and licensing boards will have a profound impact on the career of a scientist, but little or no impact on someone who has not chosen science as a career. How can we disentangle these relationships, especially when the ideal of political impartiality seems so close to ideal scientific objectivity? Science, like democratic politics, is supposed to be no respecter of persons; blind justice holds the scales of scientific evidence no less than legal evidence.

We could answer this question by saying that the proper extent of a scientific authority over an individual is proportional to that individual’s involvement in a scientific community overseen by a given scientific authority. I think this is more or less accurate, but I’m not sure that this is at all helpful. Someone whose life has little or no contact with science could, under unusual circumstances, find themselves confined to an institution on the basis of a panel of scientific experts (like the Psychiatric Security Review Board — PSRB — in Oregon), while those whose life is immersed in science will find themselves overseen by scientific institutions every day.

The question points to a much wider question that has not been made explicit (but which I have made more explicit in my reformulation of the next question), and that wider signification concerns the proper extent of scientific authority over any rational individual as an individual. That is to say, what is the epistemic authority of science over the individual? To what extent ought an individual to abide by the authority of science in matters of knowledge? This latter is a much deeper, and a more radical question. It is a fundamental question of epistemology, and in recognizing that there is a fundamental question of epistemology telescoped within questions apparently concerned only with legalistic questions about the proper extent of the authority of scientific institutions points to something important.

What is an individual’s duty in his role as an intelligent being?

I could have formulated this as a question about the duty of a individual to institutions of scientific society, which latter have authority over the individual to some extent because they are part of government, and therefore participate in the legal monopoly of the use of force. If you defy the police, you may be shot or you may be jailed. If you defy a judge, you may be jailed for an even longer period of time. If you defy a licensing board, you may lose your license to practice in a scientific career — but only if you had a license in the first place. There scenarios all suggest interesting questions, but they are not the radical question that I would like to ask.

The role of an individual’s duty to scientific knowledge and scientific truth as a rational agent, and not as member of a political society with some scientific institutions, is an entirely different matter. Or maybe not. It is a matter as universal as the rule of a political community. We are all subject to living under the authority of political communities, most of which existed before we were born, and which did not seek our consent for our participation in these communities (unless one adopts some doctrine of implied consent, which I emphatically reject). Similarly, as rational agents, i.e., as intelligent beings, we are all subject to living under epistemic and factual opportunities and limitations that existed long before we were born, and which did not seek our approval upon our coming into existence.

Asking the question in terms of the duty a rational agent owes to rationality simpliciter (apart from the embodiment of that rationality in some social institution), or the duty any intelligent being owes to the fact of the existence of intelligence in the universe, and what this intelligence entails, is a radical question that could only be answered (or addressed) by cognitive astrobiology. This is, I think, an inquiry well worth undertaking, but I honestly cannot think of a philosophical tradition that has engaged this question at the level I have proposed it here, though certainly traditional questions of the ethics of belief have touched upon this.

Scratching the Surface

The obvious objection to any knowing and acknowledged naïveté in asking political questions as though there were questions about the relationship of science to society, rather than questions about the relationship of an individual to a political community, is that the scientific community is nested within the broader community. Must not it be the case, then, that the broader community is foundational, and the ultimate basis for the relationship of the scientific community to the broader community? But we have seen that the epistemic community upon which science is presumptively based is, if anything, more universal than political communities — even if particular scientific institutions and scientific communities are narrower than political communities.

This post has turned out to be rather longer than I expected it to be — I thought I would write a couple of sentences about each question — and yet I have only scratched the surface. Any one of these questions, taken individually, could be a longish blog post of its own, and even the attempt to answer these questions poses more questions on how the relationship between science and society ought to be formulated.




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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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