It is not new that science and politics don’t mix, and there are increasing gaps in many societies between facts and values because of the different paths of historical evolution, limited exchanges in micro-cultures and also between major civilizations. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, recently wrote an essay for the New Republic in defense of science. As is the case everywhere around the world, science is under attack for its arrogance, vulgarity and narrowness of vision. But is this true? If not why? What are the limits of science and politics? Who has the right to decide this? Above all what are the consequences if science and politics run in conflict? When, how and where this takes place? These are important, if not essential, questions but the answers are not simple or straightforward and the debate will go on for generations.
Why is this happening? Pinker asks. Because, he says, science is intruding on the humanities, disciplines lacking in vitality or any real purpose of their own, and the intrusion is resented. Far from deriding science as a campaign to diminish and oversimplify — to reduce beauty to brain chemistry, say, or ethics to natural selection — the humanities should welcome science as a source of new inspiration: “Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.”
Science is judged by quality and has its own limits. However, it is always expecting respect, as is the case for values. Quality has “scientific” instruments for assessment but the limits of science are described by the distinction between facts and values. Values have other “cultural” frames to be judged upon and assessed, even economic and environmental issues are finding their way into values. Here, comes a continuous dilemma and paradox, science is practiced and done by “minorities” though its content “facts” is still shaped by the needs of the society, at least in societies that recognize the importance of science. It is, also, true that politics seek help from science whenever is necessary. This isn’t to deny that science “facts” can shed light on “values”, make moral values intelligible in physical terms, it can explain how certain moral instincts might confer an evolutionary advantage, or why they might persist. It can show that the supposed empirical basis for some moral values is simply false. Values, on the other hand, are practiced by majorities in societies, if not by everyone, and they have their own “codes of conduct” which get support by political parties and have more legitimate status through elections and political systems. Values have, therefore, enormous momentum in many societies especially where science is week with has little support.
“Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values,” Pinker goes on, “they certainly hem in the possibilities.” He’s right about this — but the second point, though interesting, is much less important than the first. Science can’t dictate values. That’s what matters. And because it can’t dictate values, it can’t dictate courses of action.
Science is always seeking respect especially when it acts beyond the limits set by politics. Climate science for example, as viewed by non-experts is a far-flung family of loosely related disciplines, which resulted in a set of costly and controversial policy proposals. This is not strange because of the extent and dimensions of the threats and as many climate scientists require urgent measures to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Still there is criticism that The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which will release its fifth assessment report on global warming next year, is an advocacy organization rather than a neutral compiler of scientific evidence. But who would invent appropriate solutions without having the knowledge and how-how to decide how, why, where and when? What to do about climate change is indeed not only a political question and if so where were the politicians? What do they want? What are their arguments? Who would take the responsibility when things go wrong? “Business as usual” still is requiring science to be cautious and do not mix with politics.