Over the past half decade, there has been a growing trend signaling a shift in the perceived and accepted role of science. It is not uncommon to see slogans and mottos such as “the science is settled” and “believe in science.”
Statements like this present two major problems: first, science is determined to be final and indisputable; second, it is accompanied by a value or moral judgment. For example, scientific studies indicate that wearing a helmet can reduce head injury by 48%, serious head injury by 60%, traumatic brain injury by 53%, [and] face injury by 23%.”
While it takes little effort to align with science on such a matter, I intend to demonstrate that an application of the first behavior is contradictory to the foundation of science and the second lies entirely outside its purview.
To establish common ground, we begin by reviewing the merits and fundamentals of the scientific method. First, an observation is made, followed by a question regarding the observation. A hypothesis is then formed that could potentially answer the question. A prediction about future results based on the hypothesis is then tested via experiments. Analysis of the results of the experiments are utilized to confirm or reject the hypothesis. If the results seem to demonstrate that the hypothesis is correct, then confidence begins to build in the predictive power of the hypothesis and its ability to describe the real world. If the results seem to demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect, then the scientific method loops back on itself and the hypothesis is challenged, refined, modified, or discarded. The process is rigorous, thorough, and exacting. It is also deeply empirical, meaning it relies on information from the real world; it can only extract data from things that have already happened. In its most basic form, this process is what constitutes “science” as commonly referred to in media and conversation.
With common ground established, the first major problem can be addressed. It is, ironically, anti-science to ever declare that science is settled. There are a few characteristics of the scientific method that substantiate this claim. Since the scientific method is based on empirical data in relation to a hypothesis, it is reliant on the senses and perceived experiences. This means it is wholly dependent on the past. Science cannot properly predict the future; it can only model what has happened and make a reasonable projection about what could happen. Scientific law hangs on statistical probability.
In addition, since man is not omniscient, the future will forever remain unknown. As man continues to explore the physical world, there always exists the possibility that enough data will accumulate to falsify, or at least cast into doubt, a well-established scientific conclusion. Because of these conditions, statements declaring the science to be settled are altogether unscientific: they reject the core principles and practices of the scientific method and the nature of human experience. Such conditions expose the ridiculousness of any insinuation that science is settled. Strictly speaking, science is unable to ever be settled. Imagine the carnage if scientists around the world had retired their lab coats and accepted the alleged “clinical proof” that certain cigarettes were not actually harmful or medically superior to other brands. Fortunately, continued use of the scientific method has built a compelling counterargument that cigarettes are in fact very detrimental to the body.
The second major problem may have more perilous implications when thoroughly examined. In the preceding discussion, it is clearly shown that science is only able to approach statistical truth based on empirical evidence. Science is, however, utterly unable to tell us what is right or wrong. There is nothing naturally occurring within the scientific method that empowers it to make value judgments or moral decisions. It cannot tell us what is good, bad, better, or worse. In essence, science is never able to say “should” or “must.” To return to our previous example, science may conclude that wearing a helmet prevents head injuries in motorbike accidents, but it is powerless to dictate that motorists should wear helmets. To do so is to make a value judgment that can only be made by individuals.
Wearing a helmet is only prescriptive if the individual motorist values the possibility of preventing a cracked skull more than riding freely in the wind. Knowing the risks and being informed by science, most motorists would likely choose to wear a helmet, but science is unable to tell them that is the choice of highest value, since individuals have different, and differing, value systems. In regards to science, what is right is dependent on the precise ends desired by individual actors and their values.
As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises stated, “There is no use in arguing about the adequacy of ethical precepts…. Ultimate ends are chosen by the individual’s judgments of value. They cannot be determined by scientific inquiry and logical reasoning.”
Allowing science to make universal value judgments also enables it to define morality. An example of this can be found in the debates surrounding abortion law. Science can tell us when a heartbeat begins, how developed a baby is in the first, second, and third trimester, and even the sex of the baby. But again, it is absolutely powerless to tell us whether it is or is not moral to abort the baby. Such an evaluation would rest on the value judgments and moral code of the individual.
The issue, then, with slogans like “believe in science” is the tendency to conflate science with morality and value. When science is wielded to make laws, it is most often done with a moral code attached. It has been shown that science is not able to do this, so the only way science can be used to make law is for someone, some real person or persons somewhere, to draw a moral conclusion based on the science. This personal, individual moral conclusion is then applied wholesale upon all that the law will reach. It is for this reason that science should never be used as a justification in any government action to enforce moral systems.
Doing so results in the morals and values of the few being imposed upon the many. But it is only individuals who can make decisions about what they will do in regard to any scientific consensus. F.A. Hayek put this neatly when he said that “individuals should be allowed … to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s.”
The results of any scientific study require interpretation, and any interpretation is necessarily subjective. The interpretation of results may go on to inform value judgments and moral codes. But if science moves into a space where its conclusions can never be challenged and it also determines morality, then it suddenly ceases to exhibit characteristics of science and has assumed characteristics of religion.
When conveniently married to power, an exaltation of science to this status can have disastrous effects, as evidenced by the acts committed by the Third Reich and other totalitarian regimes.
"Science cannot lie, for it's always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true,” Hitler famously asserted.
The further scientists drift from the scientific method to tell people what they should do, the more they undermine science and increase the potential to restrict choice, destroy human liberty, and harm real people.
It should always be remembered that while science can tell us that a phone will carry our voices through the air, it will never be able to tell us what should be said.