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Thursday, September 1, 2011

What are the “Values” of Science?

I am a typical oriental; a mixture of spirituality and skepticism. The side soaked in tradition looks at the universe from a spiritual point of view. It says that everything we see and experience in this universe must have come from ONLY one source. We are all made of similar, if not the same materials of the universe and we are all energized by the same source of Light.

The other side of me wants to deal with the realities of this world. Here we are. Here is the world. Here are other people, plants, animals etc. How do I deal with myself and how do I behave towards others? In this pragmatic world, I like to make my decisions based on observed and observable facts. Where facts are not known or not available, I make my decisions which by nature will be imperfect. There is place for the heart (emotions) and the head (logic) but no place for superstition and fanaticism. Here is where my training in the methods of science comes.

Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt has written a remarkable editorial on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). It is in the best scholarly traditions of Alexandria. He points out how the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

“Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

“Truth and honor are of utmost importance. …..A scientist may err in interpreting data, but no one can accept fabrication of data. What other field of human activity can rival this level of commitment to absolute truth?”

Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

“Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

“Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse. Ad hominem attacks are not accepted. Science treats all humans equally”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out how all of the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all of these values with exceptional vigor. “These values also provide the basis for enhancing human capabilities and human welfare”.

Before I close this essay, may I suggest to you a remarkable movie on the life of Hypatia, a female philosopher-mathematicians who was the Chief Librarian at the Alexandria Library in the 5th century CE? The movie is available in DVD format and the title is Agora.


Ramesh said...
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Ramesh said...

Lovely exposition of the values behind science. It is a sad fact that in many cultures, even today, superstition is readily believed while science is looked at with great scepticism.

Thanks for the tip on the movie. The Great Library of Alexandria was one of humankind's greatest achievements and its destruction, one of its greatest follies. I once went to the new museum that has been constructed on the site and the feeling is awe inspiring.

Balu said...

Thanks Ramesh, for reading the essay and for your comments