The morality of Science (or lack of)

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In summary: Science forward.In summary, Science can be both a beautiful and powerful tool, but it has its inherent problems, including the pursuit of impractical and ultimately fruitless endeavors.
  • #1
pergradus
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Its kind of an amazing time we live in right now. We live in a world where men have walked on the moon, people are building enormous telescopes to help search for alien life, and billions are spent chasing theoretical ideas by smashing little bits of matter together at great speeds.

There are more Scientists alive today than have existed in all of human history, and more and more Science is exploring deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Universe and pushing into ever more esoteric realms of thought.

And yet at the same time, woman and children in Africa are dying of aids. People in Afghanistan are starving to death in refugee camps, and don't even have shoes and blankets. Wars are killing millions of people a year, and blood costs less than oil.

As much as Science is this romantic expression of human curiousness and spirit, I am also compelled to say what a waste of time and money when the human condition for so much of the world remains utterly desperate. The universe will be here for a very long time, we'll have all of eternity to study it - but those who are starving and dying do not have time, and they can not help themselves. It seems to me, that there is a very fundamental lack of morality in pursuing science when we haven't even figured out how to live without slaughtering one another.

Imagine what could be accomplished instead running around trying to figure out what dark energy is, or if a higgs-boson exists, that effort and intellect when into solving real problems - like how to power the world without polluting ourselves and killing each other for resources, and how to ensure every child has access to medicine. Obviously none of that is possible without Science, but it seems so much of Science is spent chasing the most impracticable things imaginable - and that's coming from a physics major.

I understand Science can promotes innovation which promotes new technology which drives progress, but that really hasn't done much for most of the world so far. Does Science have a moral obligation to focus on the issues and questions which can make real differences in peoples lives - and save people from dying and suffering?
 
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  • #2
You bring up an excellent and very important question. By no means is the answer trivial, and regardless its an important question to ask and consider deeply.

pergradus said:
As much as Science is this romantic expression of human curiousness and spirit, I am also compelled to say what a waste of time and money when the human condition for so much of the world remains utterly desperate.
These aren't disconnected ideas. If we stop striving to advance our knowledge and understanding of the universe, if we stop devoting time to art, history, and science---and instead devote all of our resources to the practical issues of day to day life, our entire society would crumble. Within decades, we would find ourselves just as desperate; which seems to be a direction we're already moving, as education rapidly drops as a priority.

pergradus said:
It seems to me, that there is a very fundamental lack of morality in pursuing science when we haven't even figured out how to live without slaughtering one another.
Who is more likely to end up 'slaughtering' another man, a scientist, or someone uneducated? In no way is the express goal of a science like physics (e.g.) to stop world hunger, or end war and violence. But it is an implicit, and fundamental goal of the study none-the-less. Science provides one of the greatest benefits to society and man-kind overall, in the form of knowledge, awareness, and understanding. During the heights of wars (e.g. the cold war especially), science has bridged the divides of violence, cultivating cooperation and fraternity - the most fundamental step is stopping the problems you're enumerating.

pergradus said:
Imagine what could be accomplished instead running around trying to figure out what dark energy is, or if a higgs-boson exists, that effort and intellect when into solving real problems - like how to power the world without polluting ourselves and killing each other for resources, and how to ensure every child has access to medicine. Obviously none of that is possible without Science, but it seems so much of Science is spent chasing the most impracticable things imaginable - and that's coming from a physics major.
All of medicine and technology comes from scientific research. Period. Pure, theoretical physics is the tiniest little branch of science, and still---even in itself, has led to tremendous technological advancement. Outside of physics, there have been incredible developments in agriculture, environmental engineering, and medicine which offer to make the world a better place. Ironically, the companies and industries who's "express goal" is to distribute and better develop these 'practical' applications and tools are the same agents who make them inaccessible to the people starving in Africa, in Asia, all of the world.

pergradus said:
I understand Science can promotes innovation which promotes new technology which drives progress, but that really hasn't done much for most of the world so far.
Now that's just stupid. You know 'electricity'? Or the 'internet'? Or 'fertilizer', irrigation, anesthetic, antibiotics? All from science. Remember small pox? Leprosy? How are you going to treat malaria or AIDS without science?

pergradus said:
Does Science have a moral obligation to focus on the issues and questions which can make real differences in peoples lives - and save people from dying and suffering?
Of course not. 'Science' doesn't have an obligation to anything, moral or otherwise. People have a moral obligation to focus on those issues and questions. Science fits into the greater goal of education as a whole; and without that education, without science, people rarely realize or manifest that moral obligation.
 
  • #3
That logic is completely bassackwards. Virtually all advancement in the human condition has a basis in science so it can't be blamed for the fact that some haven't advanced. You should be criticicizing politics, culture and religion.

For example the "power the world" cleanly thing: we already know how and in any case looking for alternatives IS scieence!
 
  • #4
pergradus said:
Wars are killing millions of people a year

This isn't even close to true, thankfully. It hasn't been true since pre-WW2. Unless maybe you consider genocides and simply governments supporting the deaths of it's citizens and things such as that that aren't actually acts of war.

It seems to me, that there is a very fundamental lack of morality in pursuing science when we haven't even figured out how to live without slaughtering one another.

How does defunding NASA make a warlord in Africa not want to kill people?

Imagine what could be accomplished instead running around trying to figure out what dark energy is, or if a higgs-boson exists, that effort and intellect when into solving real problems - like how to power the world without polluting ourselves and killing each other for resources, and how to ensure every child has access to medicine. Obviously none of that is possible without Science, but it seems so much of Science is spent chasing the most impracticable things imaginable - and that's coming from a physics major.

Think about the US "War on Poverty". A huge social infrastructure has come into existence and we still have similar poverty rates as we had 30 years ago.

Look at all the money industrialized nations throw at the problems in Africa along with technical manpower and other resources. They never work. It's NOT a problem of money or scientific progress. They have fundamental problems that can't be addressed by science. Poverty in industrialized nations has fundamental problems that can't be addressed by science.

Look at the LHC, as you stated. The costs could be something like $10B. Now, remember, that's $10 over MANY years, not all at once or just for 1 years operation. That $10B is a drop in the bucket compared to the money spent on social services directly targeting poverty or international agencies promoting global peace and related things. Take one example: aid to Africa. The US alone sends billions of dollars to Africa every year.

So keep that in mind, the financial costs can't even be compared. There's very few $billion projects worldwide that I can even remember off the top of my head. Now couple that with the fact that those projects manifest themselves over sometimes decades.
 
  • #5
russ_watters said:
That logic is completely bassackwards. Virtually all advancement in the human condition has a basis in science so it can't be blamed for the fact that some haven't advanced. You should be criticicizing politics, culture and religion.

For example the "power the world" cleanly thing: we already know how and in any case looking for alternatives IS scieence!

You're failing to see the distinction I'm trying to make between science which has practical application in the modern world, and science which is conducted purely for the sake of doing science.

Your next argument will be something like "we can't predict what science will have application", and in some sense that's true, but not entirely. I can pretty safely say, for instance, that cosmology has zero practical use to anyone, and if we're going to be brutally honest exists mostly to feed the ego of a select few. Maybe you can argue that some technology was helped along because cosmologists wanted to do a certain experiment, but again that did nothing to help ease human suffering.

And obviously religion and politics are important, but you think science is completely removed from that? It's all part of the same equation, and I'm not here to have a discussion about religion and politics, I'm here to discuss science. (although I can already see this thread will very shortly turn into just that)
 
  • #6
pergradus said:
Your next argument will be something like "we can't predict what science will have application", and in some sense that's true, but not entirely. I can pretty safely say, for instance, that cosmology has zero practical use to anyone, and if we're going to be brutally honest exists mostly to feed the ego of a select few. Maybe you can argue that some technology was helped along because cosmologists wanted to do a certain experiment, but again that did nothing to help ease human suffering.

Even in the most direct applied scientific endeavors, you can only go so far. Again, like I've said, science will never be able to stop people from killing each other. Science can help reduce famine and hunger, but the problem is not money. I recall a funny theory someone had back in the vietnam war. They had counted how many bullets US forces had gone through vs. how many vietcong had been killed. So the guy figures, hey, all we need to do is buy X bullets and we'll have killed Y Vietcong and win the war! Well we all know how that turned out.

The problem is the same with things like poverty and hunger. Science can't fix the fundamental problems associated with poverty and famine. If we threw more money at developing agricultural solutions, we probably can improve things slightly, but it won't fix anything. Since you're a physics major, think of it this way. If we want to visit Mars quickly (days/hours, not months) or leave the solar system, we have to develop something probably fusion powered. Now, you and I both know that we can't just throw money at the problem. We have no idea how to do that with our current understanding of engineering and physics. Again, it's something fundamental, not a lack of funding.
 
  • #7
pergradus said:
I can pretty safely say, for instance, that cosmology has zero practical use to anyone, and if we're going to be brutally honest exists mostly to feed the ego of a select few.
Just off the top of my head, I can point out that cosmology has historically contributed to art, significantly contributed to GPS and to our ability to use satellites for various purposes, to weaponry and to power generation, and has led to advances in quantum mechanics. And that's not counting anything that I didn't immediately recall, connections I'm not aware of due to lack of training, indirect contributions, and things that could potentially have effects in the future.

Your comment looks more argumentative than honest, incidentally.
 
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  • #8
pergradus said:
You're failing to see the distinction I'm trying to make between science which has practical application in the modern world, and science which is conducted purely for the sake of doing science.
Nope, I've seen it before. What YOU are missing is that no such distinction exists.
Your next argument will be something like "we can't predict what science will have application"...
Nope again. We can be pretty sure that science will continue to improve the world. No, not every research avenue (you can't predict which will produce the next breakthrough), but so what? You're arguing over an insignificant sum of money. We could feed the world instead of arguing over the cost of healthcare. We just choose not to and that choice has nothing to do with science.
 
  • #9
wouldn't it be morally wrong to intervene. that is there way of life. it would have to be changed by force then education. since before time was recorded people have fought, starved, been laid low by disease, and suffered. the ones who learned from it over came the hardship a great deal. some cultures can't do that, or wont. we could destroy them and repopulate their land with our own people, or we could take control and force a change. maybe just leaving them to their way of life is the lesser of evils. any way you look at it it will be costly in lives and money.
 
  • #10
pergradus said:
I'm here to discuss science.
No you are not. You are here to discuss science done for its own sake. However, it's clear that your arguments apply to any activity done for its own sake, and so don't really have anything to do with science.
 
  • #11
pergradus said:
You're failing to see the distinction I'm trying to make between science which has practical application in the modern world, and science which is conducted purely for the sake of doing science.

Your next argument will be something like "we can't predict what science will have application", and in some sense that's true, but not entirely. I can pretty safely say, for instance, that cosmology has zero practical use to anyone, and if we're going to be brutally honest exists mostly to feed the ego of a select few. Maybe you can argue that some technology was helped along because cosmologists wanted to do a certain experiment, but again that did nothing to help ease human suffering.

And obviously religion and politics are important, but you think science is completely removed from that? It's all part of the same equation, and I'm not here to have a discussion about religion and politics, I'm here to discuss science. (although I can already see this thread will very shortly turn into just that)

Poverty is a huge problem with an ecology of facets. Science provides us with tools, if you want to make the distinction between applied and theoretical and then say one is less important you are not going to get very far!

I'm a biologist so I'll phrase my response slightly differently. Antibiotics are a clear example of science helping improve the lives of billions. Some people have argued in the past that evolution should not be funded as much because after all knowing how distantly two fish are related doesn't help us now, right?

Wrong. Everything in the natural world is interconnected and by understanding one thing you can learn to apply elsewhere. Evolution helps us understand how to make antibiotics to fight things like MRSA and antibiotic-resistant TB. Off the top of my head cosmology (though it's not my field) has shown us just how little the normal matter we see around us makes up the universe. Just because you can't see an application for knowledge doesn't mean it can't be applied one day!

To fight poverty poorer countries need to have massive investment in infrastructure, huge increases in education, replacement of corruption with law, greater spreads of wealth and better access to resources (from water and food to iron and oil). Science can help provide the tools and many scientists are compelled to do so on the bases of their own morality. But often practicalities and politics get in the way. Just look at golden rice http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_rice
 
  • #12
I think this is more an economic and political problem rather than scientifical. Science provides instruments to governments, and they only can change the situation. The thing is very complex but until there won't be an economic system that takes advantage of scientific innovations for the wealth of people, science can do nothing. Only discover more.
 
  • #13
Blacklukes said:
I think this is more an economic and political problem rather than scientifical. Science provides instruments to governments, and they only can change the situation. The thing is very complex but until there won't be an economic system that takes advantage of scientific innovations for the wealth of people, science can do nothing. Only discover more.

I can't make sense of this, are you trying to say that governments and the economy don't favour advances that benefit people? How do you explain all the technological benefits we have then :confused:. Antibiotics are a pretty good example of how science provided a tool that was massively funded by various governments of the time as the Second World War was occurring.
 
  • #14
The point might be, that before you can accuse science of not doing things, you have to realize that science can only do things it can afford to do, and people don't like to invest in science that doesn't return income somehow (or gain public acceptance and proper solicitation).

We do live in an age of Milton Friedman economics. Business operates in the interest of shareholders, and its socially acceptable for humanitarian causes to be secondary. But they can't hurt your reputation, which can get you more tax dollars through more public interest.
 
  • #15
Pythagorean said:
The point might be, that before you can accuse science of not doing things, you have to realize that science can only do things it can afford to do, and people don't like to invest in science that doesn't return income somehow (or gain public acceptance and proper solicitation).

We do live in an age of Milton Friedman economics. Business operates in the interest of shareholders, and its socially acceptable for humanitarian causes to be secondary. But they can't hurt your reputation, which can get you more tax dollars through more public interest.

Very true which is why I am a firm believe in creating government (or multi government i.e. EU) funded pharmaceutical organisations that can research medicines with no potential profit.
 
  • #16
pergradus said:
You're failing to see the distinction I'm trying to make between science which has practical application in the modern world, and science which is conducted purely for the sake of doing science.

Your next argument will be something like "we can't predict what science will have application", and in some sense that's true, but not entirely. I can pretty safely say, for instance, that cosmology has zero practical use to anyone, and if we're going to be brutally honest exists mostly to feed the ego of a select few...

I think you're missing the point about science. Science isn't about us. It's about the future and expanding our knowledge and understanding of our environments. How many hundreds of years of research and thousands of unrelated experiments in many different fields have gone into producing a smartphone? Things that the past regarded as mere parlor tricks continue to find their utility today. Your also confusing applied science and research science. Science is a tool for humanity. Not the causes of its successes and failures.
 
  • #17
The galling contrast between the luxuries afforded by high science and the desolate conditions in which fellow human beings live does, indeed, provoke some deep speculation as to whether science is "the answer". I think some good arguments have been posted that explain science as a method, a way of understanding, rather than a "thing" unto itself.

I suggest an alternative, and perhaps interesting conception of the problem. "science" as we are discussing it is the outcome of a very successful society, one that promotes rational inquiry, civility in social circumstances, comparably high degree of morality (compared to realities, not ideals), and as economists would say, functioning markets of impersonal exchange. The problems you are pointing towards are problems arising from societies lacking these elements, as in Africa, or SE Asia in places, or central Asia, etc. Furthermore, the visible problems you address are more like symptoms, rather than causes in themselves.

The reason why science isn't the "answer" is because science as we encounter it is the byproduct of a society that is already successful, it is the outcome of a viable arrangement of social institutions that promote developmental, not destructive, competition. We can't "apply" science to a ill-begotten society to "fix it" for the same reason you can't use a computer print-out to spell-check another person's document. I know this metaphor is crap, but it illustrates how silly it is to think science - as a by product - can be "applied" to address problems symptomatic of fundamental flaws.

In this perspective research oriented science is a worthy pursuit because in a recursive way it helps to support and maintain the positive social institutions enabling our own success. Implicit in your question is the idea that our success - wealth, resources, etc - can be used to help others rather than pursue science. In a contrapositive manner, I would argue that the pursuit of science is indicative of why we are successful in the first place.
 
  • #18
H2Bro said:
I suggest an alternative, and perhaps interesting conception of the problem. "science" as we are discussing it is the outcome of a very successful society, one that promotes rational inquiry, civility in social circumstances, comparably high degree of morality (compared to realities, not ideals), and as economists would say, functioning markets of impersonal exchange.

In this perspective research oriented science is a worthy pursuit because in a recursive way it helps to support and maintain the positive social institutions enabling our own success. Implicit in your question is the idea that our success - wealth, resources, etc - can be used to help others rather than pursue science. In a contrapositive manner, I would argue that the pursuit of science is indicative of why we are successful in the first place.

Welcome to PF! I disagree slightly with some of your points, Nazi Germany achieved a great deal of scientific research without civility or a high degree of morality (although discussions on what is moral is an entirely different pursuit in itself).

Also I disagree that science is indicative of why we are successful, it is the reason we are successful. Science gives us knowledge and we can apply that in the form of technology to beat back the harsher aspects of nature. Of course cultural and societal changes contribute but I feel that the discussion of how successful a culture/society is a much murkier area.
 
  • #19
H2Bro said:
...In this perspective research oriented science is a worthy pursuit because in a recursive way it helps to support and maintain the positive social institutions enabling our own success. Implicit in your question is the idea that our success - wealth, resources, etc - can be used to help others rather than pursue science. In a contrapositive manner, I would argue that the pursuit of science is indicative of why we are successful in the first place.

Have to agree with ryan_m_b. Simply, science is knowledge. Your relationship with knowledge is dependent on your culture. There are cultures that believe knowledge brings with it a burden of responsibilities. Main stream society though treats knowledge (science) as a source of power. It becomes a substance of property and monetary value. As I'd noted, some cultures treat knowledge as a gift from the environment. One which once taken becomes a burden of responsibilities on the holder.

Depending on your culture, science can either make you more powerful, more responsible or maybe something in between. Regardless, the manner in which a society treats knowledge, is the extent to which it can be detrimental or beneficial. Success? Well that too depends on what society defines as success.
 
  • #20
May be its just me but I don't understand the tone of your post.

H2Bro said:
...The problems you are pointing towards...
H2Bro said:
...Implicit in your question...

What is the second person singular supposed to imply?
 
  • #21
Like someone said already, science doesn't have moral obligation, people have.

And second, people must do what they like, they don't have to force themselves to make something just to be moral. So if you liked cosmology and studied it (and assume the study of cosmology doesn't contribute to society), you didn't have to study another thing just to be moral. You can study cosmology just because you like, without any other reason. Like you can play football just because you like, or you can play and study chess just because you like. If you're so worried about helping others, you can contribute to society in other ways, you don't have to be a scientist for that.

Personally I've cared more about this issue in the past like you seem to care now, but I realized you should just do what you want and scr*w the rest. If everyone thought they should do what they can to help others, who would have studied mathematics? Who would have studied the more abstract and theoretical parts of science? People who studied that most probably did it because they wanted, it was because they wanted to feed their egos, it wasn't to help society. Seriously, if you study science just to help others you're not with the right mindset, I don't think that was ever the true reason people study science. In essence we study science because we like it, not because of some moral obligation.
 
  • #22
The original post is a classic bromide used by the left to attack whatever they need to. It's a variation of lifeboat ethics and the starving people argument is a one-size-fits-all cudgel.

Examples: should we allow people to make and sell designer handbags when people are starving?

Should we allow advertising to take place when that money could be used to feed the starving?

"Should we allow X while people are starving?"

Notice that "X" is never one of the following:
1) "marxist dictators to have their way"
2) "public employee pensions and their skyrocketing benefits"
3) "illegal immigrants in California to get in-state tuition rates"

Note also the loaded nature of the question itself. In a free society nobody has the right to stop these things; it's actually a muted call to revolution where the usual agitations originate with the Marxist left.
 
  • #23
Science is a tool it has no implicit moral system. Those who do science have a variety of motivations. That some nations spend money on things that benefit themselves and not others is not surprising. Do some moral system require them to spend their money of others I guess some do. Do all moral system require them to spend their money on others no. Do you want them to spend their money on other yes. For me the one issue of the day is over population but that seem outside the range of this thread.
 
  • #24
edpell said:
For me the one issue of the day is over population but that seem outside the range of this thread.

Feel free to start another thread, I'd be happy to debate this.
 
  • #25
pergradus said:
Its kind of an amazing time we live in right now. We live in a world where men have walked on the moon, people are building enormous telescopes to help search for alien life, and billions are spent chasing theoretical ideas by smashing little bits of matter together at great speeds.

There are more Scientists alive today than have existed in all of human history, and more and more Science is exploring deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Universe and pushing into ever more esoteric realms of thought.

And yet at the same time, woman and children in Africa are dying of aids. People in Afghanistan are starving to death in refugee camps, and don't even have shoes and blankets. Wars are killing millions of people a year, and blood costs less than oil.

As much as Science is this romantic expression of human curiousness and spirit, I am also compelled to say what a waste of time and money when the human condition for so much of the world remains utterly desperate. The universe will be here for a very long time, we'll have all of eternity to study it - but those who are starving and dying do not have time, and they can not help themselves. It seems to me, that there is a very fundamental lack of morality in pursuing science when we haven't even figured out how to live without slaughtering one another.

Imagine what could be accomplished instead running around trying to figure out what dark energy is, or if a higgs-boson exists, that effort and intellect when into solving real problems - like how to power the world without polluting ourselves and killing each other for resources, and how to ensure every child has access to medicine. Obviously none of that is possible without Science, but it seems so much of Science is spent chasing the most impracticable things imaginable - and that's coming from a physics major.

I understand Science can promotes innovation which promotes new technology which drives progress, but that really hasn't done much for most of the world so far. Does Science have a moral obligation to focus on the issues and questions which can make real differences in peoples lives - and save people from dying and suffering?

Why blame science for billions spent? That is nothing compared to the trillions spent on wars, or the amount of money spent on un-necessary goods. Why single out science? It is actually one thing that can help the rest of humanity and not just a select amount of people. If we can harness the energy of those particles we are smashing together, we could power the homes of those in Africa and around the world. Do not act as if science does nothing for humanity, because it does more than anything. How do you think those kids with AIDS are receiving medical treatment? Thanks to science
 

Related to The morality of Science (or lack of)

What is the purpose of studying the morality of science?

The study of the morality of science aims to examine the ethical implications of scientific research and its potential impact on society. It also seeks to understand the ethical responsibilities of scientists in their work and the consequences of their actions.

Does science have a moral code?

Science does not have a specific moral code, as it is a method of inquiry that relies on empirical evidence and logical reasoning. However, scientists are expected to adhere to ethical principles, such as honesty, integrity, and respect for human and animal subjects in their research.

How does the pursuit of scientific knowledge clash with moral values?

The pursuit of scientific knowledge can sometimes clash with moral values when it involves controversial or potentially harmful research. For example, the use of animal testing in scientific experiments may conflict with the moral value of animal welfare.

What are the potential consequences of unethical scientific practices?

Unethical scientific practices can have significant consequences, both for individuals and society as a whole. This can include harm to human or animal subjects, negative impacts on the environment, and the misuse or abuse of scientific knowledge for personal gain or power.

How can scientists ensure ethical conduct in their research?

Scientists can ensure ethical conduct in their research by following established ethical guidelines and principles, seeking approval from institutional review boards for studies involving human or animal subjects, and regularly reflecting on the potential moral implications of their research.

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