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Science in the Public Square

Eric Cohen

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Years ago, William F. Buckley famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. After the 2004 presidential election, we might say the same about many of America's leading scientists. We do not say this to denigrate the scientists or their work. For the most part, their achievements in the laboratory hold our deepest admiration. Their genius makes modern life and modern democracy possible. Their inventions create wealth, cure disease, and provide the material means for defending liberty against tyranny. Without scientific greatness, American greatness is unthinkable. And without scientific achievement, America would shine less brightly in the history of human civilizations.

But it is precisely the greatness of scientists in the experimental sphere that sometimes deforms their political judgment. In the laboratory and the lecture hall, research scientists grapple intimately with the deepest mysteries of nature: the evolution of species, the biological workings of mind and body, the molecular underpinnings of the material world. But because their end is so noble--objective knowledge of nature, often "useful for life"--scientists sometimes forget that it is also partial and dependent. Even a fully demystified nature offers no obvious guide for living a decent life. And the activity of demystifying nature requires many non-scientific institutions and supports--such as a productive economy, a stable polity, and a culture that rears the young to follow in their elders' footsteps. Precisely because the scientific method works so well in acquiring objective knowledge of the natural world, scientists often forget that it cannot supply the wisdom individuals need to live well in the human world, or settle the hard political questions that citizens face about the role of science in a democratic society.

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 12-Apr-05



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