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Separation of Science and Ideology

August 1, 2011

First published August 28th 2006 13:05(but I think this has relevance to today)

Separation of Religion and Science is well and good but what about Separation of Science and Ideology?

Science and the Ideologies it inspires are often confused as one and the same thing. If science is meant to be an objective search for the truth then why are there so many people with passionate views on scientific matters? This is never more vocal than in the centre of controversial debate like the debate about ‘Therapeutic Cloning’. It has instantly created an ‘Us’ verses ‘Them’ mentality. The first reaction from the pro cloning advocates is to accuse anyone of disagreeing with them as being a religious zealot, therefore incapable of objectivity, scientific understanding and a potentially dangerous ‘right-winger’. The next reaction is to try and explain the debate in political terms such as ‘Progressive‘ and ‘Reactionary‘. Does it strike anyone other than me that neither of these methods is particularly scientific? At the best the method of arguing the case has been contaminated with personal opinions and at the worst with personal bigotries.

Faith in a scientific theory or practice is the beginning of scientific research and discovery. How would the theory of gravity be discovered if that apple was seen as just another random event in the universe? Newton had the faith to follow through with his hunch and create a whole new branch of mathematics and science. Could you imagine Einstein without his enthusiasm for a theory that would change the way the world thinks? However faith in a theory must also be supported with empirical evidence otherwise it is just another pseudo-scientific conjecture.

I would argue further that blind faith in every scientist’s opinion is as foolish as you can get. If scientists don’t trust their own and subject their discoveries to constant review, why should you? A clear example of the confusion between ideology and science is from the scientist Lysenko. His theories of conditioning and education of agriculture dominated the Soviet Union for decades but led to crop failures and starvation. Another example of faith in a scientific technique was Dr Freeman’s ‘trans-orbital procedure’ or what is commonly known as an ‘ice-pick’ lobotomy. After thousands of procedures this technique was abandoned due to its ineffectiveness to treat the actual illness it claimed it could. The questions about patient cruelty only came later. At the early part of the twentieth century Eugenics was the new wonder science to save humanity from all its problems. Nowhere was this more enthusiastically embraced than by Hitler’s scientists. Until his death Dr Mengele still believed in the ‘master race’ as a scientific fact.

Each of the examples I cite did not just occur as a simple error but as a result of the premise upon which the thinking was based. Ideology filled the gap in a market and yielded bad results despite using the best scientific techniques. They appealed to a popular idea at the time and only evidence that supported the theory was deemed credible. Detractors were often cruelly dealt with or discredited because of race, religion and nationality (It was very dangerous to believe in genetics in Stalin’s Russia).

Today the debate over ‘therapeutic cloning’ is based on a range of premises that fall beyond the ability of the scientific community answer. ‘What is a human being?‘ and ‘What rights should it have?‘ is as contentious in the scientific world as is always has been. The more important question of who decides ‘What is not a human being?‘ and who decides ‘What rights it should not have?‘ is being ignored. These are just as much philosophical and ideological debates as they are scientific. So why is it seen as the exclusive property of scientists to decide? Perhaps the ideology that ‘scientists can’t be wrong’ is driving the attitude. As for me I am very sceptical when there is call for a new theory to be treated as the new great hope of humanity. The consequences are just too great.

Editorial Comment:

Could this be equally applied to the current debate on Global warming?

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