The virtue of scientific thinking

Steven Shapin in Boston Review:

Shapin-JF15-600_0Can science make you good?

Of course it can’t, some will be quick to say—no more than repairing cars or editing literary journals can. Why should we think that science has any special capacity for moral uplift, or that scientists—by virtue of the particular job they do, or what they know, or the way in which they know it—are morally superior to other sorts of people? It is an odd question, maybe even an illogical one. Everybody knows that the prescriptive world of ought—the moral or the good—belongs to a different domain than the descriptive world of is

The ideas and feelings informing the tendency to separate science from morality do not go back forever. Underwriting it is a sensibility close to the heart of the modern cultural order, brought into being by some of the most powerful modernity-making forces. There was a time—not long ago, in historical terms—when a different “of course” prevailed: of course science can make you good. It should, and it does.

A detour through this past culture can give us a deeper appreciation of what is involved in the changing relationship between knowing about the world and knowing what is right. Much is at stake. Shifting attitudes toward this relationship between is and ought explain much of our age’s characteristic uncertainty about authority: about whom to trust and what to believe.

Read the rest here.