Two kinds of "unselfish" motives drive scientists, as experts, to publicly express their personal opinions about issues which may affect social policy:
1. They believe it's important to inform others who lack similar training and experience, of a valuable perspective arising from their personal study and practice of science when such perspective is relatively unique, and unlikely to develop spontaneously.
2. Or they wish to refute public policy based on "faulty science" proposed by non-scientists or by other scientists.
I've most frequently "gone public" on policy matters for the latter reason, but an egocentric component of my scientific perspective almost always intrudes itself.
I believe the probability of Darwinian self-preservation in a social environment is maximized if we each follow a (game-winning) strategy of measured tit-for-tat, guided by enlightened self-interest and the Golden Rule, using science as the main engine of that enlightenment. This 'prescription for a techno-oriented natural ethic' offers a frame of reference for evaluating the political positions described in the other works listed and linked below,-- (and it might even "convert" you ;-)
A short introduction of my take on the biological origins of
morality may help to clarify this point of view and will also serve
as an introduction for my letter to The New York Times Magazine,
entitled, "Liberals and Conservatives" (see below):
Science and the Ontogeny of Morality
The inborn reflexive responses of a baby to the experience of pleasure, pain and fear help craft the early stages of the development of its social interactions with, first its mother, and then other family, "friends" and "enemies". These responses have evolved, to increase the probability of the infant's survival. As the animal matures, conditioned by the degree to which it can incorporate prototypic experiences into its memory and can usefully classify them, its behavior becomes more complex, and generally will be percieved to tend to follow rules which place high value on self-preservation.
As social organisms mature, survival of the self often depends on the way the individual behaves towards other members of its community. And this is extremely important for humans. Primitive prototypic experiences which are associated with pleasure and the absense of pain and fear are usually "good"; and of course, those associated with pain and fear are usually "bad". Through evolution, the normal human brain has developed a very large capacity both for storing and for classifying protoypical experience. Reasonably intelligent people use this capacity to look a short distance forward in time to "calculate" their future best interests, and generally behave towards other members in their community in ways that try to take such forecasts into account. But the futher forward the forecast, the greater the uncertainty of the outcome.
Many people profess that their behavior is guided by the principles of their religious beliefs. And, for the major religions (and for many atheists), such principles can be usefully summarized by some form of the Golden Rule; "Do (or don't do) to others as you would (or would not) have them do to you." This encapsulates an idea of enlightened self-interest based both on an ability to forecast the fututre and, when necessary, an ability to picture the mind-set of others (presumed to be more or less like one's self).
There are those for whom science and witchcraft are indistinguishable because their survival skills have remained infantile. They can't be expected to understand subtleties of forecasting. There are others who misjudge the adequacies of their forecasting abilities, principally because they're scientifically illiterate. Although these may profess a profound commitment to a religious faith, their errors in predictions of future social consequences of present actions prevents "correct" application of their religious code; but they often attribute such failures to the inadequacies of science. Woven into this fabric is the impact of science's ready admission that the confidence that can be placed in any prediction is contingent upon how representative (always uncertain to some degree) was the sample of observations from which the prediction was derived. Few non-scientist understand the statistical and intuitive bases for judging levels of confidence, and either greatly over- or under-value them.
Then there are the transcendentalists, who believe morality is absolute, and its roots lie beyond the reach of empiricism, so when there appears to be a conflict between what science teaches, and their faith, science must be wrong. (See "The Biological Basis of Morality", E.O. Wilson, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1998, for an illuminating discussion of empiricism vs transcendentalism in this connection.)
But for the remaining political sophisticates with "the best of
intentions", a major portion of the problem lies with difficulties
that arise from various personal definitions of "others". And this is
explored in "Liberals and Consevatives".
"Liberals and Conservatives" submitted to The New York Times, Jan. 15, 1996, but never published.
"Downsizing, Computers and Our Future" submitted to The New York Times, March 15, 1996, but never published.
"The Art of Teaching Science" New York Times Magazine, April 25, p. 118, 1982, [Comment on an article with the same title, by Lewis Thomas in the New York Times Magazine , March 14, p. 89, 1982].
Next, I critique fatansies concerning hypothetical extra-terrestrial intelligence and extra-terrestrial life: (See SETI Institute and SERENDIP Home Page and The Planetary Society for the other position), and Anthropic Reasoning.
"Subnuclear Particles: A Question of Social Priorities" Science, 149: 584 (1965).
"The Population Explosion, 'Conservative Eugenics' and Human Evolution" BioScience, 17: 461 - 464 (1967).
On the Social Consequences of Computer Learning.
On Automated Medical Diagnoses.
Cure for Global Warming
Liberals And Conservatives
Increasingly, in debates about liberals and conservatives, particularly on talk-radio, conservatives misrepresent liberalism, and vice versa. The rhetoric is rarely enlightening or useful. Elements of wisdom and ignorance guide members in both camps, but the influence of ignorance is rising.
Roger Rosenblatt, (in "The Triumph of Liberalism", Jan. 14), seems to believe that "general cultural-political liberaliam.... knocked the wind out of the callous, restrictive and narrow-minded conditions that (he) grew up with a few decades ago" and that "..in competition with conservative thinking for the soul of America, it has won hands down"? Perhaps he should pay more attention to the rhetoric of freshman Republican members of Congress, like Helen Chenoweth (Idaho).
Using the social order to which one has perhaps become accustomed to assess the degree of penetration of a particular political persuasion, is illusory (look at the USSR!). The currency of the ethical principles consciously, or subconsciously guiding daily behavior are better measures.
Liberals and conservatives have different attitudes about "do's" and "don'ts", about identifying with others, and about using long-term forecasts to restrain the freedom of markets and people for perceived common good:
Over two thousand years ago, Hillel encapsulated the entire Judeo-ethic as: "Don't do to others what you wouldn't have them do to you". A few decades later, Jesus provided a "more interventionist" form: "Do to others as you would have them do to you". Conservatives tend to favor the first version of The Golden Rule, and liberals favor the second.
The rule requires that you imagine yourself inside the skins of "others", able to experience their hopes, anguish, and pain. The political right and left appear to choose to identify with different "others". Progressing from radical right to far left, preferences vary along a scale of "blood ties": family, tribe, race, mankind, animal kind, all living things, Gaia. They similarly vary along a scale of cultural/geographic ties: same sex, family, local community, state, nation, the "western democracies", the world community, and even "the galactic community".
Issues which can polarize liberals and conservatives, as a result of differing definitions of "others", include: welfare, the homeless, the aged, women's rights, gay rights, AIDS, guaranteed universal health care, immigration, foreign aid, defense, public education, public radio and television, and "animal rights".
The Golden Rule epitomizes enlightened self-interest. However, beyond issues of the moment, application of the rule, with confidence and clear conscience, requires difficult forecasting. Such prediction depends upon estimates of the long-term consequences of both the possible actions of humans and the playing out of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.
Typically, conservatives are skeptical of long-term forecasts. They tend to believe, incorrectly, that solutions to societal problems will always develop automatically through the playing out of the laws of the free marketplace. However, totally free markets are quite insensitive to the perceptions, by customers and sellers, of the long-term interests of self and "others". In a totally free market, and in the absence of intervention, some issues are "forecast" to threaten many "others" in the long-term. These usually trouble liberals, but not conservatives. Liberals tend to trust forecasts of economists, sociologists, and natural scientists, and are therefore more likely to support present societal intervention in markets, and in the lives of "others", to achieve perceived long-term "good".
As a result, liberals and conservatives usually differ over whether or not, or to what degree, to favor political intervention to deal with the population explosion, AIDS, the ozone "hole", global warming, our dependence on non-renewable resources, environmental toxins, toxic-waste-disposal, and the loss of endangered species.
In the on-going efforts to formulate effective public policy, liberal politicians should continue to press the political right to be more inclusive. Conservative politicians will have to teach many "knee-jerk" liberals a healthy level of skepticism and something about the concept of "tough love". At the same time, "knee-jerk" conservatives will have to learn to give up absolute faith in the absolute powers of the free market. But most importantly, liberals and conservatives must more honestly engage in substantive discussions of the technical merits of forecasts which may have significant societal consequences.
If both sides focus debate on the roots of
their differences which, except for the extremes, are not so very
great, they may be able to cut counterproductive partisan rhetoric
and concentrate on pragmatic compromises, to the benefit of all of us
"Tough love" = Enlightened self-interest which recognizes that to achieve substantial and long-term well-being of self and of valued "others," short-term "pain" may needed to be sufferred by those others.
This is a tricky version of "The ends
justify the means", and can easily be abused. Therefore, unless one
experiences empathetic discomfort comparable to that "inflicted" on
the others; (e.g.,when "forcing" one's child to take important but
bitter medicine), motives should be suspect.
Downsizing, Computers and Our Future
Since human populations tend to increase exponentially, we must ultimately deplete many fixed earthly resources. It has taken almost two hundred years for the essential truth of that prediction, made by Thomas Malthus, to begin to become apparent. We begin to believe that the populations of the fish of the seas and rivers and the trees of the forests are finally on the wane. We begin to worry about the predicted depletion of the reserves of oil, and the resulting greenhouse effect. And, with a growing sense of social responsibility, more of us begin to participate in recycling programs and worry about waste disposal.
Effects of natural and technological processes may often be predictable, but the ordinary citizen, and especially the typical CEO, have found it difficult to trust very long-term predictions, especially because visionaries are often off the mark about when the effects will become obvious.
The inevitable Malthusian reckoning has only been delayed because science and technology increase our productivity and help us to more efficiently utilize natural resources. Technology was bound to increase the productivity per person employed in agriculture, in manufacturing, and in many of the service industries. The computer and automation revolution of the last forty years is finally beginning to boost such productivity exponentially. Increases in productivity will require fewer and fewer man-hours to provide all necessary goods and services, and should lead to lower prices, larger marketshare and higher profits. But once world-wide population growth begins to level off or drop, (as it already has in the developed world), continuing productivity increase must necessarily mean loss of jobs through layoffs of ever growing magnitude, and/or shorter work-weeks. In the interim, what job growth there is will be mainly at the entry level, requiring less, rather than more, skill and training. And use of cheaper foreign labor only exacerbates the problem. Carried to the limit, this must mean that most people will be driven into effective unemployment.
How can free enterprise survive if most customers lack adequate income? Technological inventions which would be profitable today become too expensive to be marketed tomorrow. If people can't pay for products and services, resources for their improvement dry up and even efficient industries must ultimately fail.
And this is the poignant paradox of the playing out of the pervasive industrial downsizing, featured by the New York Times during the week of March 4th, and addressed by Max Frankel in the New York Times Magazine of March 10th, 1996 "Do Computers Eat Our Paychecks?"
To put it more concisely; the fruits of our "command" of nature have been both sweet and toxic. If we successfully decontaminate our air and water...and our prejudiced minds..., if we can avoid nuclear disasters and control population growth, then certain aspects of the future seem clear. Science and technology will continuously increase the productivity per person employed. This must lead, either to a continually decreasing average work-week, or to massive industrial unemployment. To avoid economic, let alone social chaos, will require continuing redistribution of wealth to workers (who will be gradually becoming workers in name only), either through tax-supported welfare programs or through extensive redistribution of ownership of the means of production. Most of the population will be effectively "on relief", as are many of the "idle" rich. There are no reasonable alternatives.
But when we consider the depressing failures of recent efforts to provide government relief for the impoverished: destroyed sense of self-worth; destroyed motivation for self-improvement; growing infant mortality; increases in teen-age, out-of-wedlock births; and growing drug dependence, there will be little confidence that any kind of new governmental intervention can work. And what should be equally distressing, is the evidence that the children of the affluent often exhibit a significant part of the same syndrome. It appears that if genuine satisfaction is not derived from daily occupation, a sense of self-worth and of social responsibility withers.
And unfortunately, there is no obvious way that either economic isolationism, or an unrestrained free market, can solve this problem.
Perhaps our only hope is to restructure education and our schools and universities to increasingly train the next generations for "productive, self-fulfilling leisure". Much community service, teaching, personal care, research, and participatory sports and studio/performing arts will never be replaced by machines, and could occupy most of the population, but measures of value will have to develop which are somewhat different from those of the present marketplace. It must become convincing, that such occupations, by positively contributing to the quality of life, are "worth" the entitlement payments or stock-distributions necessary to keep the economy working, are not merely "busy work" and are important to the very survival of humanity. This is a tall order.
Such a "brave new world" is something
virtually no one discusses, but to quote Max Frankel, "I wish the
politicians and the media would devote some of this year's election
debate to examining that possibility."
The Art of Teaching Science
In 1982, Lewis Thomas wrote a penetrating, compelling, poetic but partly wrong-headed criticism of the way science is being taught.
"Everyone seems to agree there is something wrong with the way science is being taught these days. But no one is at all clear about when it went wrong or what is to be done about it....During the last half-century, we have been teaching sciences as though they were the same collection of acedemic subjects as always, and--here is what has really gone wrong--as though they would always be the same..."
"... science, it appears, is an altogether different kind of learning: an unambiguous, unalterable and endlessly useful display of data that only needs to be packaged and installed somewhere in one's temporal lobe in order to achieve a full understanding of the natural world."
"And, of course, it is not like this at all. In real life, every field of science is incomplete, and most of them--whatever the record of accomplishment during the last 200 years--are still in their very earliest stages..."
"I suggest that the introductory courses in science, at all levels from grade school through college, be radically revised. Leave the fundamentals, the so-called basics, aside for a while, and concentrate the attention of all students on the things that are not known..."
"At the outset, before any fundamentals, teach the still imponderable puzzles of cosmology. Describe as clearly as possible, for the youngest minds, that there are some things going on in the universe that lie beyond comprehension, and make it plain how little is known..."
"I believe that the worst thing that has happened to science education is that the fun has gone out of it..."
"Very few recognize science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever taken by human beings, the chance to glimpse things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works..."
The reason why science is "the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works" is that it is essentially Darwinian. It constructs new understanding on a growing and experimentally refined foundation of earlier experience, "the so-called basics." It's mainly evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Excessive enthusiasm of the press and the understandably self-centered frontiersmen of science are responsible for portraying many genuinely important, but evolutionary, saltations as revolutions.
Dr. Thomas notes that the edge of the
unknown is where the fun is. But each element in the historical
development of the "basics" was equally "revolutionary" in its own
time. And the basics of science should normally be taught
first.. They can be taught to the
novice (though rarely are) with the sense of excitement of a
continuing conquest of an endless frontier.
Return to Len's Home Page (Contingent Links)<firstname.lastname@example.org>