This is a more abstract, theoretical post.
The opening words to the Preface of the National Science Teachers Association's new book Resources for Environmental Literacy: Five Teaching Modules for Middle and High School Teachers (which at a glance looks like an excellent text) read:
The primary responsibility of teachers of science is to teach science, not to inform their students on environmental issues—and certainly not to influence the stand students may take on those issues. Fostering student understanding of the scientific view of the natural world and how science goes about its work is the first order of business in the teaching of science.This touches on a question that hits close to home for me: Can science take stands on issues? I'm inclined to say no: To take stands, we also need ethics, which appears to be a separate line of thinking.
Science to me is a method for understanding the world/universe around us, one which has proved remarkably successful. But despite all this success, it (and its practitioners) often shy away from political debate. (Ditto for the engineering community, which is where I come from.) I have great respect for their desire to be honest brokers of factual knowledge, but that still leaves us with the all-important open question: How do we decide which stands to take?
As far as I can tell, nowhere in science's studies of how the world is has it found how the world ought to be. The philosophy community has struggled with this so-called is-ought problem for centuries. (See also meta-ethics.) So it looks like the NSTA chose its words wisely in the passage above: Science itself doesn't lead to stands on issues.
Science does play a role in many contemporary issues, from climate change to nuclear waste disposal to any matter of public health and much, much more. Science (and scientists) can be very helpful here by helping us get the science correct. To my delight, more and more are speaking up; the organization Scientists and Engineers for America and the excellent RealClimate blog come to mind.
But once we get the science right, we still need to take stands. This matter is the realm of ethics: the study of right and wrong. In my view, even if science can't discover, derive, or otherwise deduce some "objective morality" for us to base our ethics, we can still choose what we take to be right and wrong. I like utilitarianism, which recommends doing whatever increases quality of life the most. My Felicifia site is an open, online community where that is discussed. (You're welcome to join!) But there are other systems of ethics, and I think it's worth checking out some of them. Thinking about ethics helps us on things like determining which issues are most important and what stands to take on them. It certainly helps us be more consistent in our thinking and confident when we do change our minds. As with any rigorous topic, its study can be a challenging process, but, speaking from personal experience, it's a rewarding one.
In my ideal world, we'd make decisions based exclusively on open discussions of science and ethics. There would be no he-said she-said gossip, no ad hominem personal attacks, no misinformation campaigns (remember the Competitive Enterprise Institute ad "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life"?).
We're not there yet, but some there are some reasons I'm optimistic: The rise of the "reality-based" frame, the popularity of Al Gore's new Assault on Reason book, the respect people here give science. Our discussions of ethics are, I think, a little lacking, but I understand why this is the case and don't point any fingers, except perhaps at myself for not contributing more to the discussion. Hopefully that part will change.
Thanks for following me on this more esoteric of diaries. I hope you got something out of it.
Update: From this comment, I see I may have given the impression here that I don't want science teachers to make their own decisions on what or how to teach, etc. This is not the case. While these decisions are technically ethical decisions, not matters of science, from my ethical view (utilitarianism), the system works best when teachers are given some flexibility to run their own show.