Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Science of Culture/The Culture of Science"

March 20, 2003
Dan Sarewitz, Managing Director and Senior Research Scholar,
Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes
Columbia University, Washington D.C.

Does Science Make You Happy?

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Dan began by speaking of the "acutely nostalgic, wierdly familiar" experience of returning to Bryn Mawr (where he earned his undergraduate degree in geology); much laughter attended his "recovered memory" of a paper he once wrote for Weecha Crawford, to which she responded, "There are lots of interesting things here about politics. What about the science?" (Weecha wrily observed that she NOW encourages a political dimension in the geology papers she assigns.)

Dan's current occupation involves trying to understand what happens socially as a result of scientific "imputs." "Science by itself does nothing," he explained, but we need to be making science policies in more socially contextual ways. Doing so will enable us to make more honest claims, and actually achieve what we claim to. Scientists are not autonomous scholars; the work they do is "highly governed" by advising networks, social needs, funding, and other economic forces. Dan described a recent conference, sponsored by the Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes, which attempted to create safe space for policy makers and scientists to enter into dialogue with one another "at a high level of intention." Although the conference was very successful in the networking it accomplished, it made no change in public discourse; the conversation was "too nuanced" and so "not press worthy." A volume of essays generated by the conference will be published under the title "Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery"; the essay "Does Science Make You Happy?" (which we read in preparation for Dan's visit to campus) was written for this volume. Its intended audience is not academics, but educated readers, "the opinion-making members of this culture" who ought to be concerned with how and why science and technology are transforming their lives, but don't have those issues--and the $300 billion/yearly enterprise they entail-- "on their radar screen."

Dan reviewed the "questions he doesn't know the answer to":

  1. is there an a priori relation between science and democracy?
  2. is there an organic/instrinsic connection betwen science and human progress (does more science inevitably mean more progress? --for this is how science is currently sold to the public);
  3. how can we think more productively about the costs and benefits of how science transforms society? (at this point, there is a "high confidence that all is okay"; there is no informed prior consent for new initiatives which may have enormous social ramifications)
  4. is it possible to slow down?

In an essay in Wired called "Does the Future Really Need Us?" Bill Joy traced the potential for biotechnology to create "autonomous, semi-intelligent quasi-life forms"; soon after the piece was published, the "antibodies from the scientific community kicked in"; Nobel prize-winning scientists "went after" the technical difficulties of Joy's essay, neglecting its bigger dynamics and his central challenge: we are increasingly ceding control to nanotechnology, and we have no idea what the outcome will be.

If these questions are legitimate:

Throughout our discussion, Dan insisted on "intentionally confusing science and technology"; he refused the belief that the "results of science can be set aside." Science and its applications are very close and stimulate each other, so enmeshed as to form an "ecosystem." There is "no gain in moral significance" in moving from technology to science, since all science is both application- driven and market-focused. Science maps very well onto wherever the current "economic action" is.

Dan also repeatedly challenged the "statement of faith" so common among scientists that "more knowledge is automatically beneficial"; the very act of pursuing knowledge, he insisted, opens up a discourse we don't want to have. (See, for instance, the pragmatic arguments on this topic by the philosopher Phillip Kitcher, published in Science, Truth and Democracy.) The myth that "science itself" is inherently good ignores the interaction of science and context that fuels scientific inquiry in the first place. For instance, the "incredible hubris" of insisting that scientific understanding is "good" for creationists denied the psychological complexity of their beliefs, forcing them to "scientize" their world view, rather than acknowledging that such core values are not negotiable. Science is not the answer to such questions; we need to stop pretending that it is. We privilege it unnecessarily, because of a skein of reasons which take their root in the Enlightenment, and have at their core the very real, very practical need of science to be insulated from interference. Because scientists are scared by the "specter of governance," a vision of "brain police" telling them what to do, however, they do not want to acknowledge that they are "soldiers in a huge army." Particularly in our post-9/11 world, science cannot be conducted in secrecy; it has to be open.

We closed with the recognition that doing science is "innate"; it is intrinsic human behavior, if left unfettered, to "try things out," to "test" them. Science is curiosity driven, "playful like a kid." This does not excuse us, however, from a responsibility to take its social applications into account in the work that we do.

The conversation is invited to continue on the On-Line Forum and will resume in person next Thursday, March 27, when Xenia Morin, who is a Keck Fellow in Chemistry, will speak about "Scientific Cultures at my House: Academic vs. Industrial Life Sciences." Xenia and her husband, both biochemists, have very different lives. Her work life revolves around Bryn Mawr College and the organizations she belongs to, while her husband's work life is within the pharmaceutical industry. She will share some of their observations about these two distinctly different scientific cultures. Additionally, she will talk about her recent observations of the first meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association and its goal to positively influence the culture of science.

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