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Two Kinds Of Forteanism?

tomsk said:
I don't think anyone serious argues that scientists should have no part in these kinds of ethical debates...Scientists often display a very patronizing and lofty attitude towards others...The scientific community is nowhere near as powerless and put-upon as it likes to pretend!...Scientists are not especially skilled in ethical reasoning and can't expect everyone else to just shut up and trust them to make the right decisions...Scientists tend to assume an ethical authority they simply do not possess.
Above, I deliberately quote you out of context to draw your attention to something of an (I hope!) unconscious bias I feel I detect in what you posted. I don't intend this as any sort of attack, but I think it does illustrate what I meant about society's anti-intellectual bias. (For example: why say "Scientists are not especially skilled in ethical reasoning" when you could have said "Scientists are no more or less likely to be skilled in ethical reasoning than anyone else"? I feel certain it's the result of social conditioning, and that's why I feel compelled to question it.)

Basically, reading the whole of your post it comes across to me that while intellectually you accept the validity of scientists taking part in ethical and moral debates on an equal basis, emotionally you are nonetheless biased towards giving their arguments less weight, and unconsciously you are seeking to rationalize that bias by painting scientists as first of all arrogant and then less qualified to take part in the debate to the same degree as, by implication, the average man in the street. (You claim to doubt the contribution to any serious debate by those who approach it from the standpoint of revelationary religion, so other than the man in the street -and his representative, the politician- who is left? Philosophers? Pfui.)

Agreed, many scientists do come across as arrogant and patronizing when they take part in a debate. But so do many of those whose role in such a debate you would not question, consciously or unconsciously. Furthermore your assertion that scientists "are not especially skilled in ethical reasoning" begs the question: how do you know? I haven't seen enough public debate between scientists and non-scientists on any ethical questions to be able to form any sort of generalized view as to their gifts in that area. That's one of the things that bugs me about the debate in the first place! (As for the Horizon segment you cite, it doesn't strike me as evidence one way or the other: I personally gave up expecting the producers of that particular 'pop science' strand to do justice to any of the topics they tackle sometime in the late '80s.)

Finally, I'd draw your attention to the following statement you made:
They confuse the actual scientific process, in which their community is obviously paramount, with technological applications of the knowledge thereby gained, in which they are no more important than the rest of us in deciding what's best for society.

A broad statement that essentially encapsulates your reservations about scientists' approach to ethical questions. But how do you reconcile that position with the fact that scientists have repeatedly been the ones blowing the whistles on unethical research, been the ones most vocally opposing the unethical applications of research and being the ones who bring the ethical questions to the debating table in the first place (when they've been allowed to)?

(To illustrate what I mean consider the handy example of the atomic bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often cited as an example of how badly science can serve us when ethicists and moral philosophers don't keep an eye on them. OK, so hands up everyone who didn't know that the Manhattan Project scientists petitioned the US Govt. to refrain from using the bombs against populated targets? Or that the suggestion that a desert test should be witnessed by invited Japanese observers instead was dismissed out of hand by the politicians and the military brass as 'impractical'?)
Zygon, I think we mostly agree. To an extent I was trying to balance the more pro-science views that had been aired - didn't intend to come across as a scientist-hating machine-breaker or anything! I realize the Horizon documentary doesn't prove anything - I was just pointing it out as a small counter-example to the implication that the popular media are invariably biased against science. And I wasn't trying to claim that scientists are any less able to make ethical judgements than others; only that they're no more so.

I don't think the terms 'anti-intellectual' and 'anti-science' are necessarily equivalent, so while I'd agree that society does have anti-intellectual tendencies I'm not sure that's the sole basis of this particular culture war. I think it's more about conflict between different groups, many members of which on all sides would probably consider themselves 'intellectuals' in some sense.

Regarding my point on revealed religion, I suppose the religious have as much right as anyone else to influence society's decisions. I was thinking more of religious interference with actual issues of scientific truth. Sorry, probably caused more misunderstanding than understanding with that one. Certainly don't think we need some sort of cabal of philosopher kings making all decisions for us!

Scientists have been whistleblowers; they've also covered things up. I'd guess you don't think all decision making relating to technological subjects should be left entirely to the scientific community. What balance do you think should be struck?
But check who the scientists work for and where they get their funding from first...
JerryB said:
But check who the scientists work for and where they get their funding from first...

OK, and make sure everyone knows who and what they work for, rather than excluding them from the debate. And add people who know something of the track record of the scientists' employers/funders to the list of members of the public invited to take part.
Pience and Sower

'Knowledge is power' said Bacon

'Power tends to corrupt' said Acton


''Knowledge corrupts'' Kidd