The Virtue of Scientific Thinking

Steven Shapin in the 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.

This dismissal may capture the way many of us now think about the question, if indeed we think about it at all. But there are several reasons why it may be too quick.

First, there are different ways of understanding the question, and different modern sensibilities follow from the different senses such a question might have. Some ways of understanding it do lead to the glib dismissal, but other ways powerfully link science to moral matters. Here are just a few of the ways we might think about the relationship between science and virtue, about whether aspects of science have the power to make us good:

• Is there something about what scientists know that makes them better people than the normal run of humankind? Are different sorts of scientists—physicists, mathematicians, engineers, biologists, sociologists—more or less virtuous? And do some sorts of scientific expertise count as moral expertise?

• Are scientists recruited from a section of humankind that is already better than the norm?

• Is there something scientists know that, were it widely shared with non-scientists, would make the rest of us better? Or is there something about how scientists come to their knowledge—call it the scientific method—that would make the practices of non-scientists better, were they to master it? Would wide application of the scientist’s way of knowing make our society fairer, more just and flourishing?

More here.