Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Spreading science's values

Last week I heard Dick Taverne (Lord Taverne in private life) give the Sense About Science annual lecture. He claimed that science increases democracy, tolerance and compassion - you can hear the whole lecture on the Guardian website here. He also said that scientists' values were irrelevant to the value of their scientific work. I challenged this - here's why.

Firstly some values are built into science. Science requires openness to new ideas, without which it cannot advance. It requires a willingness to listen to ideas from any source, since authority is a poor guide to truth. And it requires respect for reason and evidence, since we are all prone to believing what we'd like to be true. As Huxley put it "The great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." Science is a social process and it works best in societies that share these values.