What Question Can Science Answer?

Throughout history, science has brought about huge improvements in technology and quality of life. From electricity to cars to the internet, scientific endeavors have produced some of the most important advancements in human history. However, science has also had its fair share of mistakes. From Eugenics to phrenology to the popularity of lobotomies in the 1960s, there are some moments in the history of science that we would all like to forget. As much as I love science, even I must admit that sometimes it simply goes wrong.

Why, though? How does science produce such long-lived mistakes when one of science’s main tenants is falsifiability, the idea that any real scientific postulate is one that can be proven wrong? To find out, perhaps we should examine some of those mistakes.  One thing all three unfortunate moments in the history of medicine I mentioned above have in common is that they were all just as much social movements as they were scientific ideas. Viewed as a way to change society for the better, these ideas were embraced by public figures and politicians and used as the basis to mold society, such as when early 20th century politicians used Eugenics as a reason to pass forced sterilization laws, many of which are still one the books today. This reveals an interesting pattern. Oftentimes, the most unfortunate moments in science history arise when bad science is embraced by the public community long after the scientific community has renounced it, because they believe that it tells us how society ought to look or function.

This is known as the blurring of the is-ought distinction, and it raises the important question about exactly what questions science can and can’t provide the answers to. Some people argue that science can answer any question, about both how the world is and how it ought to be. However, I don’t agree. On the one hand, science is by its very nature perfectly equipped to answer answer the question of is: how our world works and what it’s like. To determine what ought to be, however, we need to consider more than simply what is. Suddenly questions of right and wrong and good and evil and what we choose to value as a society become important. For example, if we are evolutionarily predisposed to enslave others, as the biologist E.O. Wilson once claimed, does that mean slaver is excusable? Of course not, because slavery is still heinous. The current state of the world does not need to be the same as how the world ought to be.

This is not, of course, to say that science has no place in the organization of our society. It’s the most reliable method we have of determine how the world works, after all, and the way the world works should influence the society we try to build, the laws we make, and the way we treat others. However, facts alone have never been enough when we discuss the world we want to create for the future. That, after all, is exactly the point of the question “what ought to be?” It is a question far less concerned with the present than with the future, the real than with what we want to make real. And while science can tell us so much about the way the world works today, we need to know more than this to build a meaningful tomorrow.