August 31, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

The values of science as a cultural institution

In the context of discussions about a controversial essay by Steven Pinker, entitled ‘Science is not your enemy‘, I came across a blog post by Jon Brock which mentioned two blooklets that were new to me. They were written by the famous scientist and science communicator Jacob Bronowski. One was The Common Sense of Science (1951) and the other Science and Human Values (1956). At the same time as starting to read Bronowski, I was also reading Harry Collins‘ book Gravity’s Ghost: Scientific discovery in the twenty-first century published in 2011, 60 years after The Common Sense of Science. In the last chapter of this book Collins, a sociologist of science, talks about ‘the central values of science as a cultural institution’. Collins doesn’t mention Bronowski, but I think they might have understood each other.

Reading Bronowski and Collins together made me wonder whether some reasons for the current turf wars between arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences might lie in deep-seated misunderstandings of the nature of science and whether it was time to rediscover some common ground, common values, common language and what Bronowski called ‘common sense’ that unite rather than divide the arts and sciences. This might also help to overcome “the prejudice of the humanist who takes his science sourly” and “the petty view which many scientists take of their own activity and that of others” on the other side (Science and Human Values, 1956: 14). It’s worth a try. So what do Bronowski and Collins have to say about the values of sciences?

The human values of science

In Science and Human Values Bronowski skilfully dispels various myths and misconceptions about science and scientists (theories, truth, certainty and facts) which still circulate in some parts of the arts, humanities and social sciences; and he does so humbly, poetically and lucidly. In the context of discussing truth, facts and theories, Bronowski also talks about values, such as dissent, tolerance and respect, which science shares with the arts. They are ‘human values’. These are collective values which may be violated by some individuals but which prevent science from turning into dogma. They also prevent the emergence of an idolatry of science, truth and facts that some call ‘scientism’ (a topic explored somewhat more aggressively in Pinker’s essay). Collins calls it the ‘glamorization’ of science (Gravity’s Ghost, p. 159).

As Bronowski points out: “The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice… [science] must have the habit of truth, not as a dogma but as a process” (Science and Human Values, p. 77). Similarly, Collins points out that values like honesty and integrity are not “a set of necessary conditions for the production of good scientific work. Rather, the overall ‘institution’ of science is formed by these values, and it follows that the day-to-day ‘form-of-life’ of science is built up through actions driven by the ‘formative intentions’ of scientists who are guided by these values” (Gravity’s Ghost, p. 157).

What are the cornerstones of science as a process and a form of life? According to Bronowski, “[b]y the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are … oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims, the do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any costs, they appeal neither to prejudice nor to authority, they are often frank about their ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of science.” (Science and Human Values, p. 75).

These values and virtues also permeate the arts and it would be a great mistake to take sides and play science off against the arts: “We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simply by taking sides.” (p. 12)

Bronowski goes on to warn us: “And this make-believe game might cost us what we value most: the human content of our lives. The scholar who disdains science may speak in fun, but his fun is not quite a laughing matter. To think of science as a set of special tricks, to see the scientist as the manipulator of outlandish skills – this is the root of the poison mandrake which flourishes rank in the comic strips. There is no more threatening and no more degrading doctrine than the fancy that somehow we may shelve the responsibility for making the decisions of our society by passing it to a few scientists armoured with a special magic.” (p. 12) The only way to avoid such mutual misunderstanding is to engage with science: “for any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open eyes towards slavery” (p. 13).

Harry Collins wrote his book at a time when science “has no longer the unquestioned authority it had when it was winning wars and promising power too cheap to meter” (Gravity’s Ghost, p. 154). Science has come under attack from many sides. Collins then asks whether science is still worth preserving and argues that if it was removed as a cultural institution we would end up living in a dystopian world (p. 155). He goes on to talk about central scientific values, such as integrity and honesty and goes as far as to claim that they not only underpin science, but can be a “good model for social conduct” (p. 161). Like Bronowski, he attributes an overall civilising value to upholding and cherishing them.

The scientific values that Collins talks about are human values and they are also, in another sense, all too human values. “The science from which we can learn to live our technological lives is hard, frustrating science full of flawed judgments which are nevertheless the best judgements there can be. … Scientists’ responsibility lies in making the best possible technical judgments, not in revealing the truth.” (p.161) Bronowski would certainly have agreed with that. He wrote in Common Sense of Science that truth “is not that which we can ideally contemplate without error, but that which we may act upon without fear” (quoting William K. Clifford‘s 1885 The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences) (p. 125)

‘Science is not your enemy’

I think it’s worth re-reading Bronowski in the context of the current flare-up of the science ‘wars’ and in the context of discussions about ‘scientism’. His books show that science doesn’t need to be anybody’s ‘enemy’. But in order to see this, we first have to understand how science works and how scientists work. This Bronowski describes beautifully; and this is what Collins learned when carrying out his research amongst physicists interested in gravitational waves.

Image: Wikimedia commons

Posted in Science