Sunday, 11 May 2008

Science and Society

Hunting down some references from a very, very interesting paper on discrepancy of justice and morality and diffrences between `liberal' and `conservative' outlooks, written by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, titled When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize I have found another quite interesting link.

This is a three-years old paper by Helga Novotny, freely accessible at Science, titled High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society.

What I have found there was quite resonant with my own thinking. Simply consider a question:
Now that researchers are becoming more than 1% of the population, should their ways of interacting with society change?

Well, have there ever been `better times' that that for Science? I guess there were, despite the numerically weaker representation. Because the trust and respect for Science were higher in 19th century...
Declining trust in science and scientific experts has been clear in public controversies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, as well as in the rejection of scientific evidence regarding vaccination safety in the UK. The Euro-barometer, conducted as an EU-wide survey, probes the state of mind of EU citizens and how they view science and technology. The most recent data are expected to be published in mid-May and, for the first time, will be commented on by a panel of experts. The 2001 survey revealed that two-thirds of the public do not feel well-informed about science and technology, and the number of people who believe in the capacity of science and technology to solve societal problems is declining. Trust in science in general seems to be on the decline in many national surveys, although scientists still come out way ahead of politicians or other public institutions.

There are currently clear examples of research on the frontiers of science clashing with human beliefs and values. From the United States, voices can be heard deploring the tendency of politicians to interfere with scientific agendas in teaching and in research and faith-based opposition to the teaching of evolution and some forms of frontier research, like stem cells continue to raise serious concern. Luckily, creationism/evolution is not an issue in Europe, largely due to the centralized education systems in most countries. However, an analogous situation exists for stem cell research, with some countries, like Germany and Italy, completely opposed. There will be a referendum in Italy shortly on stem cell research. The Catholic church urges the public not to vote, in the hope that the necessary 50% quota will not be reached, and the referendum will be defeated.

Although we may welcome greater public interest in science, if only to avoid another backlash in fields like nanotechnology as occurred with GMOs, we must also confront the thorny issue of how contemporary democracies will deal with minorities who, on faith-based or other, value-related grounds, refuse any compromise. There is no reason to believe that Europe will be immune to an ascendancy of groups who oppose otherwise promising lines of research on the basis of their value system. If the values dimension is here to stay, it is far from certain that the usual response of setting up ethical guidelines and committees will suffice, let alone that any of the efforts to "better communicate science" will have any effect.

Indeed. Science is not easily explainable, it is difficult and disturbing, it is contrary to intuitions we get as children (our naive physics, naive biology etc.).
But we need to try nevertheless. And try again. Adopt, adapt and improve. And try again.

P.S. I am sure I'll come back to the Haidt and Graham paper - the funny part is how well it explains Polish politics...

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