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Science’s “Rightful Place”

In his inaugural adress, President Obama stated “We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” What I wish to focus on here is the beginning phrase, “We will restore science to its rightful place…” This is a follow-up to my earlier post on NOMA vs COMA.

What is science’s “rightful place” in our civilization and how do we determine it? Since he didn’t elaborate, its difficult to know precisely what President Obama had in mind when he made the comment, but, based on things he said during the campaign, I suspect part of what he had in mind was lifting the ban on stem cell research, among other things. It is not my purpose here to discuss whether or not that should happen, but to instead deal with the larger question mentioned above: what is science’s rightful place in our civilzation and how is that determined?

That the President made the statement at all implies that somehow science is currently not in its rightful place. But what precisely does that mean? I suspect it means that under President Bush, the perception was that there were too many “religious” voices influencing public policy on matters of science. Hence we had bans or restrictions on stem cell research, limits on abortion practices, and controversies regarding the teaching of evolution and ID among other things. Some view these moral and ethical concerns as intrusions into the territory of “pure” science. Thus we have rhetoric to the effect that anyone who raises moral or ethical concerns about any scienctific endeavor is being “anti-science”. Science, it seems, must be free to be its own arbiter of truth and ethics.

Regardless of one’s approach to the question of science’s rightful place, it is impossible to address at all without regard to a worldview. The only question is which worldview ought to inform public policy on scientific matters and by extension define science’s rightful place in our civilzation. Despite the protest from the mavens of philosophical naturalism, science is not a worldview free practice (which is one the main reasons NOMA doesn’t really work).

It seems to me that before any substantive discussions between the President and his policy advisors regarding the restoration of science to its “rightful place” even begin, we need to have the prior discussion of what precisely is science’s rightful place and how do we determine it. That discussion would almost force consideration of what worldviews other than naturalism ought to have (and indeed do have) on scienctific practice. Without such a discussion, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create non-arbitrary public policy on matters of science.

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14 Responses to Science’s “Rightful Place”

  1. Philosophical issues aside, I think we can be pretty certain that science’s “rightful place” will be situated atop a larger pile of taxpayer cash.

  2. Obama is not as smart as as the dino-media think he is.

    More disconcertingly, he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.

  3. Tibune7 –

    Obama is not as smart as as the dino-media think he is.

    More disconcertingly, he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.

    Please keep your comments to the topic at hand and refrain from personal attacks. What you think of the PResident is immaterial to this discussion. This forum is not the place for these sorts of comments.

  4. Donald, there is no ban on stem cell research. It’s a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Two very, very important distinctions.

    Interestingly, a few months ago, after getting fed up with the word “embryonic” being left out of reporting on this issue, I emailed a New York Times reporter, pointing out the omission in an otherwise quality article. She replied saying that she wrote the story specifying embryonic, but her editors took the word out.

  5. Lighten up, DonaldM.

    Saying he’s not as smart as he thinks he is is not the same as saying he’s stupid.

    Frankly, I don’t think he’s stupid. I think he’s big problem is going to be hubris — which is quite relevant to this topic.

    If he thinks he knows the answer about science –and I think he thinks he knows a lot of answers — he’s not going to be open to discussion or consideration of other views until he faces something so glaringly unfortunate he can’t avoid them.

    And if I’m wrong I’ll be very happy.

  6. landru –It’s a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

    Very good point. One kind of wonders if embryonic stem cell research really is going to be the cure of everything why big phrama never signed on.

    And that answer of course is obvious.

  7. Perhaps science’s rightful place will be…unshackled from the philosophical underpinnings of strict materialism.

  8. I suspect it means that under President Bush, the perception was that there were too many “religious” voices influencing public policy on matters of science.

    Actually, the issue was more of the influence of partisan politics on science policy. It only seems the way you stated it because throwing bones to conservative Christians was a political tactic of the Bush Aministration.

    Case in point: George Deutsch, an erstwhile journalism major at (and dropout from) Texas A&M, who saw fit to squelch the public speaking of noted NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen. Whatever you think about Hansen’s position on global warming, silencing him is not keeping good faith with the admirable position of teaching the controversy by publicly sharing the strengths and weaknesses of any particular scientific topic.

  9. Will Obama celebrate February 12th as Lincoln’s birthday, the first president from Illinois? Of course he will but will he also mention Darwin.

    If he does the latter which I doubt he will do, he will be inviting unnecessary criticism which I am sure he doesn’t want.

  10. landru

    Donald, there is no ban on stem cell research. It’s a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Two very, very important distinctions.

    Right. But I think the restriction also included a provision that no new lines of embryonic cells could be used for research, whether federally funded or not. I might not be correct about that, though.

    UPdate: I was not correct. The ban from Presdient Bush prohibited the use of Federal funds to create new lines of embryonic stem cells, but did allow research to continue on lines already in existence at the time of the ban.

    But this is a bit of a sidetrack from the larger question I posed in the OP.

  11. How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. ~ Abraham Lincoln

  12. Science, according to Linus Pauling, is the search for truth. However, some scientists seem to believe that they are the only interpreters of truth: science decides what is truth and what is false.

    This is incorrect; science is but one means of discovering truth. There are a good number of things that rational people accept that cannot be proven scientifically.

  13. Poor wistful elitists! They long for a time when science (as they understood it) equaled certitude. They long for a time when religion knew its place.

    But Mr. President, how could someone as hip as you get caught living in the past? Aren’t you just about the hippest man who ever lived?

    Anthropogenic global warming? As dead as the present cooling. The “neo-Darwinian synthesis”? Toppled under the weight of its own manifest silliness.

    Your version of hip is no longer hip. The aging hippies who believe in you have forgotten how to look in the mirror.

    Something new is coming. Better spin again, before you find yourself living in the past.

  14. Barb

    Science, according to Linus Pauling, is the search for truth. However, some scientists seem to believe that they are the only interpreters of truth: science decides what is truth and what is false.

    This is incorrect; science is but one means of discovering truth. There are a good number of things that rational people accept that cannot be proven scientifically.

    I agree with you. But the issue I tried to address in my OP is what is science’s rightful place in our civilization and how are we to determine it? This question becomes important because it is clear from his mention of it in the inaugural address that President Obama has some specific things in mind. Thus, either by executive order or through legislation he intends to set forth public policy on matters of science. That is fine and certainly within the perogative of the President to do so. But, the larger question is what will determine or guide these public policy decisions?

    We live in a culture that reveres and holds science in a very privileged place. Whenever a news story begins with “scientists state that….” or “scientists have discovered that…” or “new scientific studies show that…”, whatever follows is given enormous weight and authority because it, after all, Science! In contrast, imagine how much authority or weight would be considered for a news story beginning with “Theologians state that…” or “Philosophers have declared that…”!

    So, in claiming that he wants to “restore science to its rightful place”, the PResident has signaled that there will be some public policies decisions coming forth on scienctific matters. Before we get there, however, I think we ought to have some sort of public discussion about what science’s rightful place is and how we determine it.

    The question has practical application. If, for example, restoring science to its “rightful place” means lifting the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that were imposed by President Bush, then what of the moral and ethical concerns invoked for those restrictions in the first place? Are they no longer valid? Have they taken science from its “rightful place” in some way? If so, how? And, what moral and ethical principles ought to guide public policy decisions on scientific matters and why?

    Its not my purpose to invoke debate on embryonic stem cell research, but to provoke some thought as to how we as a civilization ought to regard science and what principles ought to guide public policy on scientific matters.

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