Science, Truth, and Democracy
Science, Truth, and Democracy

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Philip Kitcher, "Science, Truth, and Democracy"

Dec 2, 2002

Most of my students will have nothing to do with science, viewing it not as a human pursuit but an enterprise of outer space beings who have somehow occupied the bodies of their scientific fellow students. This is, to say the least, a dangerous state of the cultural mind. One book is not going to change the culture my students inhabit, but Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy offers, if not optimism, at least a certain assurance that science is an ordinary human enterprise responsible to the concerns of the broader community. There is, he tells us, no such thing as an ideal science that gives scientists the right to soar above the concerns of society.

Kitcher cuts a clear path between those who worship science as a religion and those who fashionably insist that science is merely a set of arbitrary constructs masking power and greed. Against the universal skepticism of post-modernism he argues that science does, indeed, produce knowledge. He phrases his affirmation carefully: "The success that people collectively enjoy in predicting the behavior of objects that exist independently of all of us and in adjusting our actions to them indicates that our most successful ways of representing the world are approximately correct."

Addressing the issue of how scientists choose what they study, Kitcher uses the metaphor of maps. Just as the maps we make reveal the interests of our societies, so scientists, confronted with a potential infinity of things to study, "address the issues that are significant for people at a particular stage in the evolution of human culture." (59) There is a danger, however, in saying that scientific goals arise from the interests of society. One risks reducing science to the pursuit of practical goals, leaving no space for fields like cosmology and paleontology. What, then, constitutes valuable scientific knowledge? The answer, says Kitcher, is "commonplace and disappointing to those who expect a grand theory."(80) The answer is a bit circular: We are interested in what seems interesting to us and within our capacity to explore.

If science reveals the interests of a society, can a democratic society place limits on science? Do scientists, for instance, have the right to shrug off popularly-held social and moral concerns in the name of pure science or objective research? It takes only a moment's reflection to recognize that science is never pure, that it is always inextricably linked to its applications, that research is always linked to technology, and that we can expect the motives of scientists to be no more pure than the motives of the rest of us. Social and moral concerns, then, remain pertinent from beginning to end.

What, then, of the value of free inquiry? Isn't the scientist's right to free inquiry absolute? Kitcher addresses the question by asking us to imagine a society with significant inequality. Suppose a scientific investigation within that society were to conclude that those on the bottom are there because of natural inferiority. The effects of such a conclusion would be malign. They would simply intensify the state of inferiority. Because of this, there are, in Kitcher's view, legitimate reasons for placing limits on free inquiry. Freedom of inquiry, he says, may be an important precondition of human well-being, but preventing such inquiries as the one that concludes for natural inferiority does something good. It enhances the capacity for free inquiry of those who are said to be naturally inferior. Those on the bottom ought to be free to carry on their own investigation, and telling them they are naturally inferior only serves to inhibit that freedom. In other words, there should be a fair distribution of the right of free inquiry. It's an interesting idea. Still, Kitcher shies away from any legal ban on free inquiry because it would intensify suspicion that a prejudicial truth is being deliberately concealed.

If absolute freedom of inquiry is not a good thing, what of the value of truth itself? Isn't knowledge of the truth always and everywhere simply good? In "Subversive Truth and Ideals of Progress," Kitcher gives his answer:

I have attempted a systematic survey of all the possibilities for showing that "truth is better than much profit" and have come up empty.... Behind the often evangelical rhetoric about the value of knowledge stands a serious theology, an unexamined faith that pursuing inquiry will be good for us, even when it transforms our schemes of values. It's time to abandon that theology too. We need agnosticism all the way down. (166)

A bit later, he notes that "For all the fervor of declarations that the sciences have greatly improved human well-being and the equal ardor with which particular scientific or technological developments have been denounced, we know remarkably little about the effects of inquiry on the quality of our lives." (178)

In "Research in an Imperfect World," Kitcher concludes his essay with a discussion of the issue which seems to have inspired it in the first place: the ethics of research on the human genome. He has a personal story to tell. When government funding was sought for research on the human genome, James Watson argued that three percent of the funds should be set aside for investigating the "ethical, legal, and social implications" of the work, ELSI for short. For the many reasons which Kitcher details, this was an important step. But ELSI was doomed to fail because the ethical questions could not be disentangled from political debate. Though a working group of "committed and knowledgeable people from a number of different fields" was assembled to consider these moral implications, the NIH denied the group funds, and its chair resigned. A new structure was then promised but never materialized. "To put the point a bit uncharitably, the net result of the disbanding of the working group seems to have been to prevent a handful of serious scholars from opening up issues leaders of the genome project would rather not have aired." (192) Kitcher was a member of that working group at the time of the resignation of its chair.

The dangers to individuals and families from genome research are terrifying. The promised advantage, miracle cures, will be fulfilled, if at all, only in the far distant future. Meanwhile the research goes on, unquestioned and unchecked by any moral or social influence beyond the personal sense of responsibility of individual researchers and those who apply their conclusions. It is certainly an imperfect world.

You may also like

MAY 18, 2022 Podcast

America's Great-Power Opportunity, with Ali Wyne

As Russia's war in Ukraine deepens and China’s influence continues to grow, many observers say the United States is entering an era of “great-power ...

MAY 13, 2022 Article

Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned.

Given the troubling state of international affairs there is reason to be greatly concerned about how ethics is framed or co-opted. To meet this moment, ...

MAY 10, 2022 Podcast

Making Decisions When Values Conflict or Are Prioritized Differently, with Paul Root Wolpe

In this Artificial Intelligence & Equality podcast, Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow Wendell Wallach sits down with Emory University's Professor Paul Root Wolpe for a thought-provoking conversation about the ...