December 18, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Science Has to Borrow a Moral Compass

Observing facts is not enough to determine whether something is good or evil.

Is marijuana bad?  With the trend toward legalization of recreational marijuana use in more states, scientists are trying to study whether it does the user any good. Researchers at Colorado State found that it doesn’t seem to work the way users think it does, says Science Daily: those who take it for depression are still depressed, and those who take it for anxiety are still anxious. Conclusion: “For those suffering depression or anxiety, using cannabis for relief may not be the long-term answer.” Whether it is good to take a substance that doesn’t solve a problem the user thinks it does, though, is a moral question beyond the scope of science.

Is cannibalism bad?  Live Science gives good air time to Bill Schutt, who has a new book out called: Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. In the book, Schutt “shows just how prevalent, and just how diverse, cannibalism is among animals.” OK, so should you invite friends and family over for dinner? Zoologists can document a female spider eating her mate after sex. Mammalogists can watch stressed adults consuming their dead young to survive another day. Anthropologists can describe jungle tribes eating the flesh of their enemies in the belief it gives them power. But is cannibalism evil or wrong? Schutt has no moral answer for that:

I think our deep fascination with the topic of cannibalism stems from the fact that, since the dawn of Western culture, we’ve been taught that it’s arguably the worst thing that a person can do to another person. That in itself makes it both horrifying and interesting.

To him, it’s just a social construct. The only biological reason he comes up with is that natural selection made it taboo to protect us from certain diseases that ensue from eating human flesh. That doesn’t make it wrong, though; just as unhealthy as eating salmonella-infected chicken.

Is socialism bad?  A sad article on Medical Xpress tells about the “blood, flies, and agony” inside “Venezuela’s hospital hell.” Researchers can take notes about what the political sides believe. “The political opposition blames socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s economic management for the chaos,” the article says. “They accuse the government of corruption and incompetence.” But then, the leaders can blame other factors and say they are doing the best they can. Researchers can count the 13,000 doctors who have left the country since Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution in 1999. Scientists can count the flies on a patient’s face. They can measure the decibels in the cries of patients in agony. But they need to borrow terms like good, evil, right, or wrong.

Is child labor bad?  A paper in PLoS One describes “Labour Trafficking among Men and Boys in the Greater Mekong Subregion: Exploitation, Violence, Occupational Health Risks and Injuries.” But that’s all it can do: describe. It lists adult workers who have lost body parts. It garners statistics on who has suffered threats or severe violence. The authors say, “This study highlights the abuse and extreme occupational hazards suffered by trafficked men and boys.” That much is clinical data. But then, the authors go beyond science when they say, “Occupational health and safety interventions are urgently needed to protect male migrant labourers working in high-risk sectors, particularly fishing.” Why? Says who?

Is forced sterilization bad?  We usually hear about “reparations” from those demanding payback for descendants of slaves. But there’s another class that was mistreated by scientists: those forcibly sterilized under California’s now-despised eugenics laws. Medical Xpress now tells us that “scientists” are calling on California “to provide reparations to forced sterilization victims,” including 800 still alive from the 20,000 sterilized between 1919 and 1952. What kind of scientific study could be done to determine which scientists were in the right, and which in the wrong? After all, it was primarily the scientists of the early 20th century who were telling governors and judges that laws were needed “to prevent the ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘insane’ from procreating.” They had a disturbing euphemism for cutting off the genitals of those deemed unfit: “state sanctioned reproductive justice.” Yet similar euphemisms go on today, like “reproductive health,” to justify killing the unborn.

Is a malicious algorithm bad?  An opinion piece in PNAS uses the word “need” four times and “require” four more. Ben Schneiderman advises, “The dangers of faulty, biased, or malicious algorithms requires independent oversight.” He is rightly concerned about the risk of accidents to bad algorithms in drones, self-driving cars and healthcare robots that put people’s lives at risk. But are accidents bad? They just happen. That’s all science can say. It’s the National Academy of Sciences, not the National Academy of Ethics.

IN all these examples,  the researchers might have strong opinions one way or the other. But they have to borrow their moral compass. It doesn’t emerge out of the data.

Let’s try one more illustration: Is superstition bad? Here we can have a little fun at Graham Lawton’s expense. In New Scientist, he knows that people are naturally superstitious. It seems to be the human default position. Lawton has an evolutionary answer: it protects us. “Think you’re an atheist? Heaven forfend!” he jests. “Your default is to believe in the supernatural, and there is no manual override.” There are no atheists more than skin deep, he argues; “Scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.” Why? (We let him dig his own hole.) “That’s because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, also make us very receptive to religious concepts.” You mean, like the belief that nothing banged and became animate, and emerged into your mind? (We envision Lawton getting a little red under the collar.) You just stated that “evolution” endowed you with “cognitive tendencies.” Is that the kind of religious concept you are talking about? A mystical power granting mystical tendencies through some personified force? No! he shouts. Evolution is a fact! Every one of our faculties came through evolution! “One is the suite of cognitive abilities known as theory of mind … which enable us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts. That’s damn useful for a social species like us, but also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own.” I see, we reply. Thanks for the warning. You almost tricked us into believing you were serious. But I am serious! he objects. Sorry, Mr. Lawton. You said there is no manual override. That means that your feelings about superstition are themselves superstitious. Evolution is protecting me from you. Thank you; good day.

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