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Is Science Making Us More Ignorant?

Science and the Public

Austin Dacey

Volume 28.6, November / December 2004

The attempt to integrate basic cultural beliefs with the scientific outlook calls for a new interdisciplinary academic field. Such a field could contribute to the debate over public literacy in science and help motivate public support for science.

Is science making us more ignorant? Surely, scientific knowledge is increasing. In a year, we will know more, and in richer detail, about the universe than we do now. In one sense, the scientific ignorance of laypeople increases with each increase in specialists’ knowledge, since most laypeople can’t keep abreast of advancing science. But even if everyone were scientifically informed, that would not keep us from being ignorant in the following sense. We still might be lost, in that we might not have a reasonable grasp of basic issues like these: What are we? Why are we here? How are we related to nature? Why is this world here rather than some other world or “nothing at all?” What can we know? What can we hope for? A person who could recite the periodic table and explain the difference between introns and exons but who had nothing to say on questions like these would be out to sea intellectually.

Throughout most of human history, people have gotten a handle on such questions by way of common sense, religion, philosophy, literature and art, educational and civil institutions, and assumptions embedded in natural language itself—in short, by way of their culture. Of course, a single culture might contain many, sometimes conflicting, answers. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as a cultural understanding of our basic outlook on the world and our place in it.

Today, this understanding is being unsettled. Emerging science clearly speaks to central cultural questions, but precisely what it says is unclear. This is an opportunity for a new line of inquiry, rooted in a new multidisciplinary academic field with tremendous intellectual and social significance. It could help point the way to renewed support for publicly funded basic research and decide what sort of “science literacy” matters most.

The Loss of Cultural Understanding

Consider the question of what we are. One way to approach this question is through a complex of cultural beliefs about the self; for instance, that it is a coherent, unitary entity, mostly transparent to introspection, which authors behavior by the free directives of its will. Now, neuroscience is probing the brain and behavior and discovering some startling facts. By observing electrical activity around your hippocampus on a computer screen, others can predict more accurately than you can whether you will successfully recall the name of a person you just met. Meanwhile, the neural activity associated with a choice appears to precede your conscious experience of that choice. This is just the beginning. Do these facts contradict the received cultural understanding of the self? Do they reinforce it? Or are they not facts about the self at all but about something else? I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone does at this point.

And that is how science is making us more ignorant. Before neuroscience, the received cultural understanding of the self was reasonable because it was favored by the balance of the total evidence available to us. That evidence included our own introspection, along with the cultural sources just mentioned. We had an idea of what was going on with the self. With the advent of neuroscience, the total evidence available to us came to include the results of the investigations of that field. Yet we don’t know what this expanded set of evidence should lead us to conclude with respect to our cultural beliefs about the self. Thus, we have become more ignorant about the self. The point is not that some people don’t yet understand the latest relevant science. Rather, the latest science makes it the case that we no longer understand what we once did about the self. A similar case can be made for each of the basic cultural questions mentioned above.

Someone skeptical about the reach of science might reply that neuroscience research is not a proper part of the total evidence relevant to understanding the self. However, such research clearly appears relevant. Maybe the appearance is misleading, but no one has established that it is. Until this is established, basic pieces of culture remain up for grabs. In a prescientific environment, we could discharge our epistemic duties with respect to our cultural beliefs without thinking about science. To do that now would be to ignore a part of the total evidence relevant to those beliefs. And that would be ignorant.

A New Field of Inquiry

The positive way to say that science is making us more ignorant is to say that it is opening up a new field of inquiry. There are different ways to frame this field. For reasons that will emerge below, I frame it as “science and the public.” I see it as having philosophical and empirical-sociological aspects. The philosophical aim is to articulate the relationships (logical, conceptual, epistemological, normative) that hold between emerging scientific knowledge and basic cultural beliefs and values. The empirical-sociological aim is to examine how these relationships play out in the interactions of actual participants in the culture, namely, institutions of science and technology and the public. We are familiar with the idea that science has technological and medical applications. But it also has cultural applications. The field of science and the public can also be thought of as the study of the cultural applications of science.

The general idea of bridging science and culture is nothing new. However, the present notion of science and the public is distinctive. Perhaps the two thinkers who loom the largest in this area are C.P. Snow and E.O. Wilson. In a now-famous, 1959 lecture, Snow decried the gulf between the “two cultures,” with literary intellectuals and artists on the one side and scientists and technologists on the other. [1] He was worried that academics were not talking to each other across these disciplinary fences. Snow was right to be concerned, and his concerns remain timely today. We can go further than Snow, however. Basic cultural understanding, common to literary and scientific types alike, is being upended by the growth of science. Reconstructing it will require the cross-disciplinary work of scholars in the sciences and the humanities.

The contemporary scientific outlook is widely presumed to be materialist or physicalist, in that all properties and relations in the universe (or universes) are thought to depend in some way on the fundamental wave-particles and forces postulated by physical theory. This presents a problem, for there are plenty of things in the world that we regard as real—intentions, promises, jealousy, friends, toll roads, federal constitutions, and so forth—yet they appear in no physical theory. What are we to make of them? That is, how are we to systematically relate our commonsense and cultural ontologies to physicalist ontologies? One solution is so-called intertheoretic reduction: “higher-order” entities are “nothing but” agglomerations of “lower-order” entities, and the laws governing the former can be deduced from the laws governing the latter. This was the bold agenda championed by E.O. Wilson under the banner of consilience, the idea that “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.” [2]

Unfortunately for Wilson, this reductionist program has long since been abandoned because of insurmountable technical obstacles, even in the case of reducing biology to chemistry. [3] Reductionism is dead, whereas nonreductive integration is very much alive. [4] Throughout the fields of philosophy, cognitive psychology, linguistics, even theology, researchers are attempting to systematically relate their subject matter to the ontologies emerging from the natural sciences. The field of science and the public would draw these disparate research projects together, offering a coherent overview (inasmuch as the overview turns out to be coherent).

The Role of Academia

To date, there are no major academic institutions devoted to studying the cultural applications of science. Traditional training in formal-science teaching tends to focus, quite appropriately, on science as a body of knowledge or set of methods. In the U.S. and in the United Kingdom especially, there are also thriving academic programs in the field known as “science communication” or “public understanding of science,” for instance, the programs at Cornell University and the London School of Economics. These programs typically consist of sociological examination of the public’s experience of science, especially as mediated by mass communication. Programs in the history of science and technology, such as the initiative at MIT, look at the social repercussions of science and technology over time. None are primarily concerned with the intellectual and normative connections linking the scientific outlook with cultural beliefs and values. Many analytic philosophers are taking naturalistic, scientifically informed approaches to semantics, the mind, morality, and other issues. The task of synthesizing these independent lines of inquiry has for the most part been left to others.

A new interdisciplinary academic field is needed. The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit research organization concerned with the scientific outlook, is collaborating with the University at Buffalo on a program in Science and the Public, which will initially include research and an interdisciplinary Master’s degree. [5] The program is being designed to attract scholars in the sciences and humanities, as well as educators, policy makers, and journalists who seek a new language and framework in which to discuss the intersections of science and culture.

The subject of science and the public is related to, but distinct from, the subject of public science literacy. Scholars and policy experts continue to disagree about what kind of science literacy is desirable and how to promote it. [6] Not even scientists and science educators, much less laypeople, have a comprehensive grasp of the fundamental principles and findings of all fields of contemporary science. [7] It may well be that the findings are just too numerous and complex, and the principles too nongeneralizable; there is simply more scientific knowledge than even a reasonably intelligent and well-educated person could become competent in (and there is good inductive evidence that this situation will continue into the foreseeable future). As a workable alternative to this ideal of science literacy, we might look toward the public’s appreciation of the scientific outlook’s import for basic cultural beliefs and values. Further, one of the things that most disturbs science educators, especially in the U.S., is the high level of public belief in pseudoscience, the paranormal, and the supernatural: ghosts, demons, reincarnation, creationism, psychic abilities, and so on. Yet no one has successfully demonstrated that traditional education in science tends to reduce such beliefs generally. [8] With its focus on cultural implications, the science and the public approach engages them directly.

Leading colleges and universities may be beginning to rethink the place of science education in their core undergraduate curricula. The 2004 Harvard College Curricular Review by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences noted: “. . . our undergraduates will live in a world of ongoing scientific and technological revolution. We are revising our understanding of the biological infrastructure of life, and challenging conceptions of human nature and of our physical universe. . . . We must prepare not only science concentrators but also those students more interested in the humanities and social sciences to grapple with the scientific and technological elements of the public policy issues and ethical questions that will arise in their lifetimes.” [9]

The Review concluded that students should grasp the foundational principles, methods, and institutional culture of the sciences; broad-based survey courses alone are insufficient. A reinvigoration of science’s role in a liberal-arts curriculum, of the kind being considered by Harvard, will benefit from serious reflection on the relationships between science and culture. It is precisely this reflection, I am arguing, that deserves a specially dedicated academic effort.

The Search for a New Public Science Policy

Aside from its intrinsic interest, the field of science and the public could play an important role in securing public support for science. The architects of twentieth-century American science policy saw that basic scientific research would require public—i.e., governmental—support. The received policy dates to the closing years of World War II, when leading scientists sought to continue the partnerships between academic, business, and military communities that had been forged during wartime. In 1945, President Roosevelt commissioned a report that would come to structure American science policy for the next fifty years. Science: The Endless Frontier, authored by Carnegie Institution president and electrical engineer Vannenar Bush, made the case for securing government funding for “basic research” (by which he meant research guided by theoretical rather than practical considerations) while relaxing wartime controls and security constraints. The report led to the creation of the National Science Foundation five years later. [10]

The received science policy served the country’s national interests throughout the eras of Sputnik and the H-bomb. It also made the United States the world’s leading contributor to the global commons of scientific information, an enormous wealth of data that are copyright-free and open to all for further study and applications. Throughout most of the history of the U.S., a liberal regime of copyright law reinforced the scientific ethos of information sharing. Data as such were not eligible for copyright protection and immediately entered the public domain upon publication. Other researchers could protect specific scientific publications that used or compiled the data, while the data itself remained non-copyrightable, along with any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery” found in a scientific work. [11]

This legal infrastructure has come under stress at several points. The commercialization of biochemistry by the pharmaceutical industry is the most pressing. Corporate-funded researchers bury the results of clinical trials when they are found to be unfavorable to their sponsors, depriving public science of crucial data. [12] Drug companies block cheap generics desperately needed in the developing world, insisting on an inflexible intellectual-property system in the face of a staggering humanitarian toll.

Less noticeably, the proportion of government-funded to private-funded research and development has fallen from a high of sixty-seven percent in the 1960s to twenty-six percent in 2000. The universities, traditional centers for the production of public basic science, are especially vulnerable to financial pressures. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 encouraged schools to commercialize the applications of research, even when it is federally funded. Some observers see funding “shifting from military-related physics and chemistry to commercially oriented molecular biology applications, chiefly for agricultural and drug corporations. In many leading universities, a new pharmaceutical-corporate complex is slowly displacing the older military-industrial complex. . . .” [13]

Meanwhile, with the rise in digital media for disseminating information, have come new opportunities to own and control it. Under the 1996 European Union Database Directive and similar proposals put forward in the U. S., the maker of a database is granted a new sui generis property right to all the information it contains. In general, when information is accessed via computer software, the creators of that software have the power to limit access even when such access would be permitted by the copyright. In this digital environment, copyright holders’ controls can easily outpace their permissions. [14]

Where Vannenar Bush feared the meddling fingers of short-sighted bureaucrats, today, it is the market’s invisible hands that are bending science into a narrowly utilitarian shape. Surely, any sensible knowledge economy must provide incentives to private interests to invest in innovative science and technology. But these incentives must be weighed against the great public interest in free and open basic science. Its flourishing will require a new commitment of public support, a new contract between science and society. [15]

As the Cold War did a generation ago, an open-ended “war on terrorism” might justify federal spending on certain fields, such as bioinformatics—but what of evolutionary ecology or neurobiology? [16] Practical arguments for noncommercial applications might support investment in some sciences, such as climatology—but what of cosmology or theoretical physics? Here the cultural applications of science may help point the way to a post-Cold War defense of publicly funded basic research. The cultural project of self-discovery, once carried out in the solitary introspections of a Descartes or Luther, now animates research programs enlisting dozens or hundreds of people and resources from around the globe. In an age of science, cultural knowledge isn’t cheap. And like knowledge in general, it is a public good. In the terms of economic theory, its use is non-rivalrous—once the good has been produced, the marginal cost of providing it to each additional user tends to be low to zero—and it is non-excludable—preventing anyone from using the good without preventing all is impracticable or impossible. [17] Like other public goods, knowledge invites “free riders,” making it unattractive to private investors seeking financial returns. Citizens who care about basic cultural knowledge should care about public investment in fundamental science.

Conclusion

Science doesn’t shed only light. It also casts shadows, splintering the “clear and distinct ideas” of Cartesian intuition and the “inner light” of conscience into a thousand variegated shades. If we look carefully into this dappled array, we can make out the beginnings of a new cultural understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. To make sense of it, we will need a field of inquiry that examines the intersection of the scientific outlook with fundamental cultural beliefs and values. Attention to science and the public could also help refocus the debate over science literacy and motivate public support for basic research in the post-Cold War era.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Camilla Dacey-Groth, Elizabeth Harman, Paul Kurtz, and Christopher Whittle for their comments.

Notes

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.