Friday, September 17, 2004


There was a slightly odd discussion about science and public policy on BBC Radio 4 this morning. In the wake of public health panics over matters such as the MMR triple-vaccine, the 'Today' programme asked how the confidence of the general public could be regained by the scientific community, which was sometimes seen to be too influenced by corporate and commercial interests.

This, of course, is an important and valid question. The marketisation of society, and with it of scientific endeavour, raises profoundly problematic moral issues. How can control and accountability be maintained in an era of weakening states and boundary-defiant technology?

Unfortunately, the axis of the exchange between Kathy Sykes, Collier Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, and Tracey Brown, spokesperson for the lobbying organisation Sense About Science, turned on a naive fact-value distinction - not helped by the interviewer, who seemed to think people wanted scientists to be "desiccated fact machines". It was as if Kantian and (more importantly) post-Kantian theory had never really happened.

In fairness, Sykes was well aware of this. But Brown's advocacy of evidence-based science as 'opinion free' seemed monological. Empiricism is an important tool, and rightly used can help guard against extending ideas beyond the explanatory territory where they first emerged. But wrongly used (that is, when it denies non-empirical factors) it can do the opposite. Seeing it as the only form of rationality is therefore dangerous. What we 'find' when we investigate analytically is conditioned by a range of social, cultural and political factors. One does not have to be a raving philosophical anti-realist to recognize this.

As Kathy Sykes rightly said, in the debate about the application of science and technology we need to hear from scientists about the evidence they are weighing, and also about how they see that evidence shaping (or being shaped by) wider public concerns. And we also need to engage with other perspectives on the same issues.

Mary Midgely has some thought-provoking and trenchant observations to make about over-reductive approaches to the public role of science in her new book The Myths We Live By. She has also made some useful interventions in the discussion about the different languages of religion and the social and material sciences, of course.

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