Friday, September 4, 2009

Science: An exercise in amorality

My first classes, once the introductions are over, are an exercise in trying to convince a bunch of business accounting and English majors the necessity of taking a science elective in order to graduate from our institution of higher learning. Part of the discussion, a very important part, is trying to build an understanding that science has a method of gaining knowledge in the most objective manner possible (redefining theory for people steeped in the pop culture meaning of the word is the hardest part).

The next part is tougher in some ways: why a humanities or tech major needs to understand the way science works, whether in geology, biology, physics or any other discipline. I start out by pointing out that many scientists are in the business of "solving problems". When the scientist is a medical doctor, or an environmental scientist, this is straightforward: they want to cure diseases or limit the effects of pollution. But then I ask what problems a military scientist solves. It only takes a moment before someone will say "to kill people". Someone will usually add "before they kill us". This is my opening to ask "Is military science moral? Is science in general moral?"

What follows sometimes gets interesting. My classroom environment is usually easy-going and even informal, and suddenly we are talking about some deadly serious stuff. Being "moral" generally refers to conforming to what is right and good. To be described as "immoral" is to have morals that run counter to the society one lives in. And then the lesson in the Latin language: put an 'a' in front of the word, and make the meaning the opposite: "amoral", being without morals altogether.

Science is amoral. I ask if this is a good or a bad thing, and after a moment, we realize that such a value judgement is irrelevant. It is simply a statement of fact. Science is a seeking of facts and processes that govern the natural universe. Any aspect of morality, any judgement as to the ethics of a particular scientific experiment are the responsibility not just of the scientist, or some ethics board staffed by scientists and administrators, but of every participating member of the society. And that is why it is necessary to educate non-science majors in the workings of science. By way of voting, participating in government (i.e. school boards), protesting, writing politicians, they will be able to act, not from ignorance (we have plenty of that), but from a position of knowledge.

To drive the point home, I ask the following: Is it a valid scientific experiment to figure out how much torture a prisoner can suffer before dying? The answer: of course it is! A group of prisoners is selected, their level of health and well-being is recorded, they are tortured in a variety of ways with increasing intensity, and the timing and manner of their death is recorded. From this, the experimenters know how far they can go with torture without losing the prisoner. Of course, the class knows that this is highly unethical, to say the very least, but it drives the point home: science is amoral, and we as a society are the ones who decide the ethics of a given experiment. In other words, it is the extreme example that makes the point best.

I had that discussion in class yesterday.

Today, in the New York Times, I read the following, from Eugene Robinson (via Daily Kos)

For the Bush administration, torture was a delicate business. The aim was to injure but not incapacitate -- to inflict precisely enough pain and terror to break a subject's will, but no more. To calibrate the proper degree of abuse, the torturer needed an accurate sense of how much agony the subject's mind and body can tolerate.

In the administration's program of "enhanced interrogation," this expertise was provided by doctors and psychologists -- professionals who are supposed to heal and comfort. A new report by Physicians for Human Rights assembles the evidence and reaches a sickening but inescapable conclusion: "Health professionals played central roles in developing,implementing and providing justification for torture."

Dwell on that for a moment, especially if you believe that the Bush administration's decision to submit terrorism suspects to medieval interrogation practices was somehow justifiable -- or even if you believe that torture was wrong, but that now we should "look forward" and pretend it never happened. This is how torture warps a society and distorts its values.
I am horrified at what we have become as a nation. Why aren't these people on trial?


Anonymous said...

Garry - GREAT post! Sounds like a very relevant way to begin a science course. It is those more uncomfortable questions that are the best thought provokers. You are an inspirational blogger and I imagine even better in person. Your students are lucky to have signed up for a class from you! If I lived closer I'd want to come by for a lecture or two - wonder if I could sneak in and blend in with the students - would you recognize me? ... Joy

Term Papers said...

I never thought of it like that, but it really is true.

Ginger Peterson said...

Love it :)

Scientist said...

Good points you make about science being amoral. I wish the public understood scientific methodology better, keep up the good work.

One point you don't realize however, which is incredibly ironic, is that warfare is also amoral, which is where the saying "all is fair in love and war" comes from and is also the reason why these people aren't on trial. Trial, laws and judgement are manifestations of a civil society whilst war exists in the interstitial space between societies with different and often conflicting laws. It is also the reason attempts to impose rules of combat by such things as the Geneva convention are constantly violated and nearly always go unpunished.

Do I think torturing terror suspects is right? It is also an irrelevant question.