Opinion: No, science can’t be our moral compass

A role in morality would only make science more biased

Writer: Karolay Lorenty
Editor: Gracie Enticknap
Artist: Patrick Marenda

The moral relativism that has inundated public debate has prompted scientists to come forward and purport science as the solution to our moral dilemmas. In his TED Talk, the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris ponders: “How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering?”. Admittedly, he crushes relativism; there are right and wrong answers. Yet he fails to provide any argument for the unique place that he wishes science to take.

Although science can undeniably provide facts and knowledge, we must be careful. It is human to seek out comfort in absolute certainty when confronted with ambiguity. However, we need to remember that what characterises science is not conviction, but skepticism. Science dislikes dogma and its favourite pastime is to prove itself wrong. In fact, science is enduring a reproducibility crisis, with more than 70% of researchers saying that they have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and over 50% failing to reproduce their own findings.

This may only be whispered within academic institutions, lest religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists arm up to attack the Achilles’ heel of science. But fret not; it is far from a catastrophic situation. Science is inherently constrained by human limitations and scientists are well-versed in their craft’s imperfections, doubling efforts to improve rigour. Science is not to be ashamed, but proud. It cares more about the truth than about being right – a skill much needed in the world today.

Perhaps more worrying is the influence of culture on academic research. In the words of Angela Saini: “Want to do better science? Admit you’re not objective”. Science’s support of eugenics in the past has been repeatedly condemned and has become a well-known example of the biases underlying science. A more recent example is neurosexism, with efforts to dismantle the weak science behind the belief that women’s brains are wired differently. Not yet behind us, cultural biases continue to impregnate academic research. 

On the other hand, it may actually be in the best interest of scientific principles to be spared from having a central role in morality. Without acquiring such a responsibility, there are already arguments in favour of limiting scientific freedom. While Saini suggests that science should not be separated from politics, I differ. It is understandable to want to constrain science due to the fear of falling into regressive intents, but we need to remember that whatever limitations are put in place will bring along their own biases.

It is not just regressive views that lead to academic mistakes; the progressive side also has the power to influence. In 2018, the Sokal Hoax revealed that influential journals were willing to publish papers with rather questionable hypotheses, including “Do dogs suffer from oppression based upon (perceived) gender?”. These findings are worrying and demonstrate that science can be influenced by both regressive and progressive views, urging us to reclaim objectivity. We cannot allow science to be dictated by the whims of mainstream culture.

While the desire to control science comes from a place of fear, such an attempt misses the point. Scientific findings can only provide facts and expose inconsistencies; the moral conclusions will always depend on the ideology of their interpreter. Designating science as our moral compass is powerful because of its perceived legitimacy. But stripped from freedom and at the mercy of interpretation, science becomes a dictator of morality that can only confirm the morals of whoever is in power.

Ultimately, no evidence can decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is up to us where to draw the line. It may sound like an immense pressure is being thrust upon us. But history has shown that we have opportunities to reconsider and do ‘better’ moving forward – as long as the objectivity of science remains intact. 

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