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Science: Overview


Science looms as large as any aspect of the contemporary world, with multiple moral and political engagements on its own as well as through its associations with technology. Both as a positive feature of the human world and as a phenomenon against which there are many reactions, science is a distinguishing feature of the contemporary ethical and political landscape. An overview of this landscape is facilitated by distinctions between science as a body of knowledge and as a human activity. As an activity science may be further examined as both a cognitive and a social process. Ethics is implicated in all three senses: knowledge, cognitive activity, and social process.

Body of Knowledge

In the public mind relations between science and ethics are commonly associated with the ethical and religious challenges from certain types of scientific knowledge—about the origins of life or the cosmos, about brain chemistry as the basis of mind, and more. But scientific knowledge can also be adopted to support received religious traditions and basic ethical assumptions—as when the Big Bang theory is interpreted as evidence of divine creation or quantum indeterminacy as the basis of free will.

RELIGIOUS ISSUES. Historically there have been persistent tensions between claims to revelation and knowledge acquired by natural means. During the Middle Ages Christian theology at one point sought to delimit Aristotelian natural science; specific propositions from Thomas Aquinas's effort to synthesize revelation and Aristotelian science were condemned by the bishop of Paris in 1277 (and not formally revoked until 1325). The trial of Galileo Galilei for his support of Copernican astronomy is another widely cited example. (The 1633 edict of the Inquisition was not formally revoked until 1992.) The 1925 trial of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes concerned with the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools is yet another celebrated case, as is mentioned in an entry on its contemporary echo, the "Evolution–Creationism Debate."

Analyzing these and related cases scholars have distinguished a spectrum of possible interactions between science and religion, some focusing more on theological issues, others on ethics. No one has done more to parse these debates than the physicist and theologian Ian G. Barbour, winner of the 1999 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. According to Barbour (2000), there are at least four distinctive relations between science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. In a series of books published over a forty-year period, Barbour explores such relations across history, in different theological communities, and in diverse branches of science such as astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and genetics. At the same time, in contrast to evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould (1999) who argues for the independence of "non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA)" between science and religion, Barbour defends a relationship of dialogue and integration. The entry on "Christian Perspectives" makes further use of a version of this range of possibilities. Similar alternatives are also exemplified in entries on other religious traditions such as "Buddhist Perspectives" and "Jewish Perspectives."

ETHICAL ISSUES. As with religion, relations between scientific knowledge and ethics fall out into a number of different possible models: opposition (substantive ethical criticisms of science), separation (as in the fact/value dichotomy), reductionism (of ethics to science), and cooperation or partnership (in efforts to develop a scientific ethics or to use scientific knowledge to achieve ethical ends). A host of Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics entries illustrate and deepen each of these models. Entries on particular branches of science, from "Astronomy" to "Psychology," tend to stress opportunities for syntheses. Entries on concepts such as "Determinism" and the "Fact/Value Dichotomy" highlight separations. Entries on "Evolutionary Ethics" and "Scientific Ethics" argue possibilities for basing ethics on science.

Increasing recognition within the scientific community of the importance of issues related to the human interpretation of scientific knowledge is reflected in the founding by the American Association for the Advancement of Science of a special Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, as described in the entry on the "American Association for the Advancement of Science." Substantive interpretations of the meaning of scientific knowledge remain an ongoing concern that has not been fully met by either scientific humanism, religious apologetics, or humanities reflection on the achievements of science—all of which are approaches represented in the present encyclopedia.

Cognitive Activity

Assessing science as a cognitive activity is the primary task of the philosophy of science and obviously overlaps with critical reflections on science as a body of knowledge. Yet in the philosophy of science the emphasis is less on the human or social meanings of scientific knowledge and more on examining the structure of such knowledge and analyzing its epistemological claims. Analyses of the structure of scientific knowledge involve three broad problem sets dealing with demarcation, confirmation, and explanation. How is scientific knowledge distinguished from pretensions to science (that is, pseudoscience) and other types of knowledge (using appeals to certainty, objectivity, reproducibility, predictive power)? What are the methods of scientific knowledge production (deduction, induction, verification, confirmation, falsification)? How do scientific explanations function (in their integration of observations, laws, and theories)?

With regard to epistemological claims, there are two major views of science: realism and instrumentalism. Realism argues that scientific propositions in some manner reflect the way the world really is, meaning they correspond to reality. By contrast, instrumentalism argues that scientific propositions are simply tools for explaining or manipulating phenomena. For the realist, the model of the atom provides a picture of what atoms actually look like. For the instrumentalist or antirealist, the differential equations used to predict the path of the Moon around Earth have no direct correspondence to the forces that actually move the Moon.

All basic philosophy of science texts cover these topic sets, as well as the debate between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper over the historical character of science that has been so prominent since the mid-1960s (see, e.g., the entries on "Kuhn, Thomas" and "Popper, Karl"). Increasingly there are also modest inclusions of arguments about values, especially the way gender bias may be operative in science. But in respect to values and ethics in science as a cognitive or knowledge-producing activity, it is discussions of fraud and misconduct in science, as covered by entries on "Scientific Integrity" and "Responsible Conduct of Research," that are most relevant. The most widely used introduction to these issues is the pamphlet On Being a Scientist (2nd edition, 1995), prepared by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.

Social Process

Science is not only a cognitive activity but also a social process involving interactions on several levels from individual laboratories to academic disciplines and from corporations to national and international science policymaking organizations. Examination of these interactions has taken on increased importance as science has grown from a small community of practitioners to an abundant and widely dispersed "metropolis"—from small science to big technoscience. The focus of early modern philosophers, however, was on cognitive at the expense of social activities, and it was not until the 1930s that Robert Merton undertook to pursue the sociology of science.

According to Merton (as considered in the entry on "Merton, Robert"), science as a social institution rests on a normative structure that best flourishes in a democratic society because of a common ethos. Moreover, scientists ought to participate in the social order rather than pretend to a "sanguine isolationism." Indeed, World War II brought about a new era of increased participation by scientists in military and political affairs. Not only did this raise questions about their responsibility for the knowledge they produced and the products, processes, and systems such knowledge made possible, but it also posed dilemmas about the appropriate roles for scientists in political controversies. It was in the midst of such dilemmas that the "scientists' movement" (as described in Mitcham 2003) arose to help direct scientific developments toward particular ends.

Social disillusionment with science and technology in the 1960s and 1970s spurred the public understanding of science movement, which has made common cause with older traditions in the popularization of science. (See the entry on "Public Understanding of Science.") It was also related to developments in the history and philosophy of science. Against more rational reconstructionist arguments such as those of Popper, Kuhn argued that science does not progress toward reality or truth simply by the accretion of new discoveries. Rather scientific knowledge is best viewed as the product of a historically contingent group of practitioners operating from shared rules applied to a certain range of acceptable problems.

Though not his intention, Kuhn's work stimulated theories about the socially constructed nature of scientific knowledge, which in its strong form leads to relativism or antirealism, because scientific facts are deemed to be the result of network building and negotiating rather than approximating reality. But in its weak form the contextualization of science leads to the rather non-controversial notion that knowledge is a product both of nature (a reality "out there") and human cultural and theoretical interests that condition particular trajectories of research. The move from internalist studies of science to contextual interpretations has given rise to interdisciplinary fields including science, technology, and society (STS) studies, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and rhetoric of science, all of which challenge the Mertonian ideals as fully adequate descriptions of the real social processes in science. (For more details, see the entries on "Science, Technology, and Society Studies" and "Rhetoric of Science and Technology.")

A perennial theme of science as a social process is the extent to which planning the agenda of (especially publicly funded) scientific research to meet explicit social and economic goals is feasible or desirable. In the United Kingdom during the 1930s this debate flared between supporters of Michael Polanyi and those who backed J. D. Bernal. (The encyclopedia has entries on both men.) Polanyi argued that autonomy and self-governance by science was the best way to meet social goals, whereas Bernal held that autonomous science was inefficient and needed external guidance. The same debate occurred in the United States after World War II between Vannevar Bush and Senator Harley Kilgore regarding the appropriate relationship between science and the federal government during peacetime. (See the entry on "Bush, Vannevar," as well as that on "Science Policy.") At issue are the criteria by which to judge scientific success and whether they should be internalist (e.g., peer review) or some external measure based on societal concerns.

Pressure to increase the social and fiscal accountability of publicly funded science emerged at the end of the Cold War. Related developments included science shops in Europe and other efforts to democratize science. In the United States, examples included the Office of Technology Assessment, the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) research as part of the Human Genome Project and federally funded nanotechnology research, and the "broader impacts" criterion implemented by the National Science Foundation in 1997. (Further discussion can be found in entries on "Human Genome Organization," "Science Shops," "U.S. National Science Foundation," and related entries.)

Many of these developments are reactions to the fact that scientific research, despite its numerous benefits, does not yield unmitigated goods. Health and environmental risks as well as escalating arms races are familiar unintended consequences. Additionally, scientific knowledge can complicate decision making without always improving it, and has made its own share of mistakes with regard to recommendations of public interest. But the possibility of new "subversive truths" from genomic research, uncharacterized risks from nanotechnology, and the global threat of terrorism all raise the stakes of seeking new knowledge and crafting arrangements for directing it toward common goods.


Throughout discussions of the relationship between science and ethics one core issue that remains is the proper extent and nature of scientific autonomy. David H. Guston (2000) has identified four reasons why science is often defended as special, each of which requires a degree of autonomy for its protection. Epistemological specialness refers to the notion that science searches for objective truth. Sociological specialness is the claim that science has a unique normative order that provides for self-governance. Platonic specialness refers to its esoteric, technical nature far removed from the knowledge of common citizens. Economic specialness is the claim that investments in science are crucial for productivity.

In each case there is some truth to the claims of specialness, which require the recognition of science as a unique enterprise needing some degree of separation from other social activities to ensure its smooth functioning. But as scientists as diverse as the physicist Alvin M. Weinberg (1967) and the geologist Daniel Sarewitz (1996) have argued, none of these cases should be taken as a license for absolute autonomy. Indeed the big science of the twenty-first century is so dependent on corporate and public investments that isolation is not a real option. More fundamentally, scientific knowledge is just one good to be considered among many competing goods. The ambiguity about the right level of autonomy has led to several interpretations about the proper role of science in society within various contexts, as well as criticisms of the ways in which scientific disciplines sometimes reinforce the self-perpetuating pursuit of new knowledge in the form of what Daniel Callahan (2003) has criticized as a "research imperative."


SEE ALSO Ethics: Overview; Evolution-Creationism Debate; Expertise; Governance of Science; Humanization and Dehumanization; Technology: Overview; Unintended Consequences.


Balashov, Yuri, and Alex Rosenberg, eds. (2002). Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings. London: Routledge. Twenty-nine readings divided into six parts, the last of which considers science as a historical and social process.

Barbour, Ian G. (1966). Issues in Science and Religion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Barbour, Ian G. (1974). Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion. New York: Harper and Row.

Barbour, Ian G. (2000). When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. This is a revised and (in the best sense) popular summary of the basic arguments from his Gifford Lectures volume, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), which was previously revised and expanded as Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

Callahan, Daniel. (2003). What Price Better Health? Hazards of the Research Imperative. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; New York: Milbank Memorial Fund.

Collins, Harry, and Trevor Pinch. (1998). The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, 2nd edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Seven case studies arguing the social construction of scientific knowledge.

Curd, Martin, and J. A. Cover, eds. (1998). Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. New York: Norton. A comprehensive anthology with forty-nine selections divided into nine sections.

Gould, Stephen J. (1999). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballentine.

Guston, David H. (2000). Between Politics and Science: Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, Philip. (2001). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klemke, E. D.; Robert Hollinger; David Wÿss Rudge; and A. David Kline, eds. (1998). Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, 3rd edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Thirty-three readings divided into six parts, the last of which deals with "Science and Values."

Mitcham, Carl. (2003). "Professional Idealism among Scientists and Engineers: A Neglected Tradition in STS Studies." Technology in Society 25(2): 249–262.

Newton-Smith, W. H., ed. (2000). A Companion to the Philosophy of Science. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Eighty-one articles covering key concepts and philosophers, with one entry on "Values in Science."

Rosenberg, Alex. (2000). The Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge. An introductory monograph.

Salmon, Merrilee H.; John Earman; Clark Glymour; et al. (1992). Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sarewitz, Daniel. (1996). Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

U.S. National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; and Institute of Medicine. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (1995). On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Weinberg, Alvin M. (1967). "The Choices of Big Science." Chap. 3 in Reflections on Big Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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