Posted by: Dan | January 28, 2009

Overbye on the Rightful Place of Science

Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy, excerpted paragraphs:

To be honest, the restoration of science was the least of it, but when Barack Obama proclaimed during his Inaugural Address that he would “restore science to its rightful place,” you could feel a dark cloud lifting like a sigh from the shoulders of the scientific community in this country.

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.



  1. I think you make a serious mistake as a scientist in advocating political causes. But it’s your mistake to make ….

    I thought you’d find this interesting.

    The most salient point of Theron’s criticism, in my view, is that anthropomorphic climate change scientists put political advocacy first and science second. That’s not a recipe for credibility. My gut feeling is that Hansens’s “science” was more about grabbing headlines.

    Others follow his poor example in their own disciplines. But some of it will come back to bite them in the derriere. After many centuries common sense is still a good cognitive model (one of its teachings is “look before you leap”).

  2. ANF,
    Why is it a mistake for me as a scientist to advocate science? Am I not more familiar with science than the average bear? Or do you just think that science shouldn’t be advocated?

    I’ve visited the blog WattsUpWithThat at various times in the last three years and joined in conversations in the comments. Their whole argument boiled down to “you can’t trust the scientists.” No new contradictory evidence, simply a demand to ignore or misrepresent the existing evidence in the peer-reviewed literature. That’s little more than denialism. But yes, Hansen was censored and his 1988 climate forcing forecasts have been validated.

    This post however is not about climate change per se. I have some threads on climate change, if that’s what you really want to comment on (see “Climate Change” in the tag cloud on the sidebar).

    Do you have anything to say about Overbye’s essay or the “Rightful place of science”?

  3. Incidentally, recently ScienceBlogs has been collecting responses for “The Rightful Place Project.”

    There’s some very good discussion there, check it out.


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