Speaking of Science as a Guide

Why science is, at best, an insecure guide for moral formation, principles, and decision-making:


"Hal Lewis: My Resignation from the American Physical Society"

2. The appallingly tendentious APS statement on Climate Change was apparently written in a hurry by a few people over lunch, and is certainly not representative of the talents of APS members as I have long known them. So a few of us petitioned the Council to reconsider it. One of the outstanding marks of (in)distinction in the Statement was the poison word incontrovertible, which describes few items in physics, certainly not this one. In response APS appointed a secret committee that never met, never troubled to speak to any skeptics, yet endorsed the Statement in its entirety. (They did admit that the tone was a bit strong, but amazingly kept the poison word incontrovertible to describe the evidence, a position supported by no one.) In the end, the Council kept the original statement, word for word, but approved a far longer "explanatory" screed, admitting that there were uncertainties, but brushing them aside to give blanket approval to the original. The original Statement, which still stands as the APS position, also contains what I consider pompous and asinine advice to all world governments, as if the APS were master of the universe. It is not, and I am embarrassed that our leaders seem to think it is. This is not fun and games, these are serious matters involving vast fractions of our national substance, and the reputation of the Society as a scientific society is at stake.

Simply put: while science CAN inform decisions, one must decide whether science has actually reached a conclusion or overreached. The difficulty I have found in most research is that while the methods of Science are solid, the conclusion are necessarily tentative and subject to interpretation.  As a result, the same "facts" have different and often misleading interpretations.  Not necessarily deliberately misleading--for example, there are a great many scientists who despite the scandal around climategate have reached the conclusion that human-mediated global warming is occurring.  These scientists have examined the evidence and found it sufficient to warrant this conclusion.  I respect those who can parse the data in such a way as to reach these conclusions--and I mean that without irony.  I respectfully decline to reach a conclusion on the issue right now.  I don't know enough to know how "polluted" the data are and have only the opinions of experts (fiercely divided) on which to base such conclusions.  However, even without the "facts" decided, it is relatively easy to reach a moral conclusion about right action here.  Even if global warming is NOT occurring--if it lies within our power to do so, should we not do our best both to preserve Earth's resources AND to do what we can to make certain that we cause as little impact as possible?  That is simply a question of fowling the nest, not only for ourselves but for future generations.  You don't need science to address the issue, and, in fact, science doesn't help.  As in so many cases, the facts will not.  

Can science contribute to moral decision making?  Undoubtedly, but one must be very, very cautious in determining both how much and how far this can be taken.  In my experience so much of what seems very settled is, in fact, hotly contested.  The "facts" can be difficult to discern, and unlike Newtonian Mechanics, in which the approximation is good enough--there may be cases in which the unsettled nature of the fact in question may be insufficient to allow even for informing a reasonable moral decision.


  1. There's a response from APS fisked at WUWT check it out!

    The MSM will try to keep this quiet just like last week's global warming scandal.

    If you aren't familiar with the 10:10 dust up, see the videos below.

    While watching the first one, ask yourself if it's sincere or if 10:10 is being pranked on by skeptics.

    Keep watching until you're sure, and then watch more.

    Note: the resignations of Chris Landsea and Roger A Pielke SR. both hint at conspiracy.

    Landsea resigned because of an unethical press conference that was likely used by Al Gore as a green light to build his movie around Hurricane Katrina.

    Pielke resigned because while lead author for a major climate report, scientists worked behind his back to undermine him. These incidents are well known and not hard to research.
    Even if you are familiar with the 10:10 thing, there's a variety of over the top eco stuff in the playlist.

  2. Hi Steve, hope you’re doing well and please forgive the long reply.

    Instead of “science,” I propose we use the expression rational inquiry, i.e., logic, reasoning, and empirical observation.

    So the question becomes can rational inquiry guide moral deliberation?

    I challenge you (non-defiantly, of course) to find a hot-button moral issue where rational inquiry has no role to play whatsoever. I don’t think it can be done.

    Should stem cell research be actively funded? Should women have the right to terminate a pregnancy? Should gays be allowed to marry? And so on.

    In all three of these cases, the moral dispute revolves around a fact, either known, poorly known, or currently unknown.

    In the case of stem cell research, there’s disagreement about whether embryonic stem cells are the kinds of thing that can be harmed or injured. This is a question for rational inquiry to decide. Not blind guesswork.

    In the case of abortion, there’s disagreement about whether a fetus is capable of suffering. This, too, is a question for rational inquiry to decide. Not blind guesswork.


    This isn’t to say that rational inquiry is always right or that its conclusions are always sound.

    On the contrary, the history of thought reveals quite clearly that rational inquiry often stumbles on bad methods, limited data sets, or silly interpretations.

    In complex domains especially, rational inquiry is inherently provisional and tentative. Some new method or data set or interpretation can always come along and improve our understanding of the world.

    This doesn’t mean that we should abandon rational inquiry.

    It just means that we should be humble, open-minded, and commit ourselves anew to the very difficult task of thinking well about matters of fact, so that we’re in a position to appraise them, evaluate them, and determine what we should (or should not) do in light of them.


  3. Dear Kevin:

    "So the question becomes can rational inquiry guide moral deliberation?"

    Abolutely--this simple change changes everything. Rational inquiry is one of the foundational bases of moral deliberation. Rational inquiry needs to be part of any such decision. The problem is to limit the data to the empirical. Rational inquiry can and should take into account all data--both the empirical and those derived from other understandings of the world. There is no rational basis to conclude that slavery is wrong--much of that depends upon previously existing constructs. However, rational inquiry that takes into account natural law as well as empirical evidence can demonstrate that slavery is a grave evil.

    The argument is never against rational inquiry, and I have never argued that it should be abandoned--all morality, even that derived from revelation has been shaped by rational inquiry. The question of the possibility of a "just war" is a matter that has undergone just the type of rational inquiry you have outlined here. Over the years, as the methods of war have changed, the "facts" have helped to determine the ultimate morality.

    You won't see me argue against reason or the implementation of demonstrable facts. But you will hear me say strongly and vociferously Science and "fact" that is not yet fact, or fact that is subject to varied interpretation--what does one do about global warming data, for example? Much depends more on one's agenda than on the facts.

    And yet, the real fact, it IS possible to reduce our impact on the environment, shouldn't we then do so? tends to get ignored. It is expensive, it is a policy decision, but you don't need the "fact" or otherwise of global warming to work out a rational approach to the question.

    Hope this makes clear what I'm thinking. We aren't far apart in terms of method--we may disagree on allowable evidence--but that's another discussion. But no, rational inquiry should always be part of an informed moral decision.




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