In his inaugural adress, President Obama stated “We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” What I wish to focus on here is the beginning phrase, “We will restore science to its rightful place…” This is a follow-up to my earlier post on NOMA vs COMA.
What is science’s “rightful place” in our civilization and how do we determine it? Since he didn’t elaborate, its difficult to know precisely what President Obama had in mind when he made the comment, but, based on things he said during the campaign, I suspect part of what he had in mind was lifting the ban on stem cell research, among other things. It is not my purpose here to discuss whether or not that should happen, but to instead deal with the larger question mentioned above: what is science’s rightful place in our civilzation and how is that determined?
That the President made the statement at all implies that somehow science is currently not in its rightful place. But what precisely does that mean? I suspect it means that under President Bush, the perception was that there were too many “religious” voices influencing public policy on matters of science. Hence we had bans or restrictions on stem cell research, limits on abortion practices, and controversies regarding the teaching of evolution and ID among other things. Some view these moral and ethical concerns as intrusions into the territory of “pure” science. Thus we have rhetoric to the effect that anyone who raises moral or ethical concerns about any scienctific endeavor is being “anti-science”. Science, it seems, must be free to be its own arbiter of truth and ethics.
Regardless of one’s approach to the question of science’s rightful place, it is impossible to address at all without regard to a worldview. The only question is which worldview ought to inform public policy on scientific matters and by extension define science’s rightful place in our civilzation. Despite the protest from the mavens of philosophical naturalism, science is not a worldview free practice (which is one the main reasons NOMA doesn’t really work).
It seems to me that before any substantive discussions between the President and his policy advisors regarding the restoration of science to its “rightful place” even begin, we need to have the prior discussion of what precisely is science’s rightful place and how do we determine it. That discussion would almost force consideration of what worldviews other than naturalism ought to have (and indeed do have) on scienctific practice. Without such a discussion, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create non-arbitrary public policy on matters of science.