“Follow the Science”…

File:Caltech chemical laboratory 1923.png
Scientists labor long hours to discover new things. What should we do with their discoveries?

I teach an introductory biology course at Barclay college. The textbook that I use has the following to say about science:

[S]cientific findings are “value neutral.” Science, in its ideal form, provides us with facts that are independent of subjective values; in other words, scientific data exists outside of any belief system. For example, science can describe in detail the events that occur when a human egg is fertilized, but cannot tell us whether a fertilized egg is a person.

Teresa Audesirk, Gerald Audesirk, and Bruce E. Byers (2017) Biology: Life on Earth with Physiology Pearson, Hoboken, New Jersey, pg. 9

I mostly agree with these statements. I happen to believe that a person’s belief system has an impact on how a person interprets scientific data, but I do agree with the basic idea that science does not come with a “built in” morality system. I see science as a tool, and like many other tools, it can be used wisely or foolishly. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or wack a person on the head, science can be used to improve the quality of human life (which many people would treat as important) or it can be used to cause wanton destruction (which many people would treat as reprehensible).

I have seen similar statements in other science textbooks, especially those at the introductory level, and I suspect that they are there partially to give scientists and instructors an “out” of difficult questions. If a student is to ask, “What about human cloning?” the instructor can say, “That is a moral choice, and we are studying the science of cloning.” A student may ask, “Should governments regular carbon emissions?”, and the instructor can respond with, “Scientists just tell governments how global warming works, what they do with that information is their own decision.”

See how neatly that works? If science is “value neutral,” then scientists can talk about the science of anything they want, and any perceived question of morality and abuse can be simply dismissed.

Let us now apply this line of reasoning to the current Covid-19 pandemic. A common phrase used these days is, “We should follow the science.” But what can science actually tell us? It can tell us how the cornavirus is transmitted. It can tell use the total number of cases. It can tell us the mortality rate. It can tell use the probability of survival when a person is infected. It can tell us the rate of infection. It can tell us a lot.

Do you know what it cannot tell us? What we to do with that information. Science is “value neutral,” after all. Wearing a mask because you do not want to pass the disease to another person means you are valuing the life of people around you. What if someone does not value the life of people around him? Social distancing shows that you are valuing your own life by preventing expose to the disease. What if someone does not value his own life?

It does not have to be as extreme as that. Suppose someone reads all of the research and decides, “I do not think that the risk of exposure outweighs my desire for social contact, so I will not be doing social distancing and I will not be wearing a mask.” Can science tell that person he is wrong? No, because science is “value neutral”: it cannot measure how much he values social interactions, therefore it cannot tell him that his safety, and the possible exposure of the disease to people around him, outweighs his desire for social interactions. It is “value neutral.”

I guess that this post is a long way to say, science can tell us all it wants about Covid-19, but when it comes down to it, we should use that information in a way that we see fit. It is a matter of freedom, not a matter of “following the science.”

Because science is “value neutral.”

Steven King

P.S. For those who are concerned that I am throwing all caution to the wind, I actually wear a mask and social distance quite frequently. I do it because my employer requires it. I do it because places that I shop at require it. I respect their freedom to make those choices for their own businesses. I value my interactions with those organizations, so I respect their decisions. That is the choice I made regardless of the science.

…because science is “value neutral.”