In Defense of Scientific Inquiry

A frequent and erroneous criticism of science is that because it has been used for evil, a scientific worldview is foolish if not dangerous. Commonly cited examples of this abuse include eugenics, social Darwinism, and weapons manufacturing. As the argument goes, being too scientific – be it individually or as a society – will lead us down a corrupt path, perhaps as extreme as the Nazi regime’s goal of a racially pure utopia. Science is cold and calculating, and those who put too much stock into will end up eroding their own moral and ethical fiber. Additionally, this is often presented as the reason why religion is vital, if not superior, to science.

There are many problems with this perception, particularly the notion that science and religion are on the same spectrum (more on that later). While it’s certainly true that science has been manipulated to serve dark ends, those objectives were not the product of scientific inquiry. Racist, murderous, and totalitarian ideologies have always existed, and evil people will always co-opt any institution or system they can to further their aims, whether its religion, politics, or science.

Furthermore, these ideologies tended to be rather unscientific, regardless of what their proponent claimed. Social Darwinism, if one bothers to look at the history of it, was hardly backed up by any scientific evidence (Darwin himself never proposed such a thing, despite the name association). Nazi and eugenicist concepts of race were similarly unscientific, and were at best the product of a misunderstanding of scientific conclusions (and at worst outright nonsense that merely cloaked itself in science for legitimacy).

The most important refutation, however, goes back to my previous mention about science and religion not being comparable. Science is a methodology, not an ideology: there is no creed or dogma from which scientifically-minded individuals can commit atrocities. Science is an instrument, not an institution or belief-system. Plenty of tools are used for evil, but the fault lies with their wielder, not the mechanism itself. We don’t discount the value of automobiles, rockets, or planes just because they’ve been used in warfare.

Non-scientific and irrational motivations are what lead to the misuse of science, not “too much science.” There is simply no such thing. Humans derive their values from all sorts of other places, since science is absent of any principles besides the importance of reason, empiricism, and falibilism (although if we construe it broadly, science can better our values: a commitment to rational thinking, for example, can inform our ethics and morals).

Regardless of how it’s been abused, there’s no denying that scientific inquiry has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe. The fact that it’s been misapplied or misunderstood is a problem of human nature, not science. Science is constantly evolving, just like the rest of us. Scientists have been wrong plenty of times, and they’ve been guilty of as much immorality and incompetence as anyone else. But the beauty of science is its ability to explore, ask questions, and seek to improve upon itself. Given all the problems our planet faces, we could use more scientific thinking, not less.