12 August 2007

Giving scientific authority to moral judgment – Wisdom Sunday

Another bit of wisdom from Dr. Peck. This time from his book on human evil, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Touchstone, 1985). In this passage Dr. Peck writes on the subject of “cloaking moral judgment in scientific authority.”

[Cloaking moral judgment in scientific authority] is a major pitfall…because we ascribe to science much more authority than it deserves. We do so for two reasons. One is that very few of us understand the limitations of science. The other is that we are too dependent upon authority in general.

When our children were infants we were blessed by the very best of pediatricians, a kind and dedicated gently man of great erudition. When we visited him a month after the birth of our oldest child, he instructed us to start feeding her solid goods almost immediately, because such supplementation was needed for babies being breast-fed. A year later, when we visited him a month after the birth of our second daughter, he directed us to delay feeding this one solid good as long as possible so as not to deprive her of the extraordinary nutrition in breast milk. The state of the “science” had changed! When I was in medical school we were taught that the essential treatment for diverticulosis was a low-roughage diet. Now medical students are taught that the essential treatment is a high-roughage diet.

[…]

What is worrisome about this is the possibility that scientists—specifically psychologists—will make public pronouncements on the evil of certain personages or events. We scientists, unfortunately, are little more immune than anyone else to jumping to unsound conclusions. Many psychiatrists who had never even met the man labeled Barry Goldwater…"psychologically unfit" to be President. In the USSR, psychiatrists systematically abuse their profession by labeling political dissidents “mentally ill”, thereby serving the interests of the state rather than the interests of truth and healing.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the public is actually eager to be guided by the pronouncements of scientists. [T]he majority would rather follow than lead. We are content…to let our authorities do our thinking for us. There is a…tendency to make of our scientists “philosopher kings”, whom we allow to guide us through intellectual labyrinths, when they are often just as lost as the rest of us.

In our intellectual laziness we forget that scientific thought is almost as faddish as taste. Since the current opinion of the scientific establishment is only the latest and never the last word, we must for our safety as a public bear the responsibility of being skeptical of our scientists and their pronouncements. In others words, we should never relinquish our individual leadership. Demanding though it may be, we should all attempt to be scientists at least to the degree that we make our own judgments on issues of good and evil. Although issues of good and evil are too important to exclude from scientific examination, they are also too important to leave entirely to the scientists.

Fortunately, in our culture, scientists love to argue with one another. I shudder to think of a time and place in which there is a “scientific” gospel on the nature of good and evil that is not subject to debate. I use “scientific” in quotes [here] because debate is the cornerstone of genuine science, and a science without debate and exuberant skepticism is not a science at all. The best safeguard we have against the misuse of the concept of evil by scientists is to ensure that science remains scientific and grounded in a democratic culture in which open debate is encouraged (257-58)
An observation: It is interesting to note, in light of Dr. Peck’s warning, how often debates on certain subjects are declared to be at an end. I shudder to think of a time and place in which there is a “scientific” gospel on any issue that is not subject to debate. Of course, when one thinks about it, one understands that we do live in such a time and in such a place.

The world can do as they will. For Christians only Jesus is Lord; only He has unquestioned authority. All others, even scientists, get questioned.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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