Human knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds. Since the advent of the scientific method, innovation has expanded, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep going. This brings us to a new challenge in living in this changing world: what do we do with all this knowledge?
Science tries to describe the world we live in, but we’re using that information to try to build a unitary model of the world, one that makes sense.
We’re assuming that there is “one true way” that can be found and understood. The underlying thought seems to be “if I act in accordance with science, then I am somehow more efficient, better able to compete, and thus a “success.” And as far as it goes, that is not only true, but a truism. Science is how we defined “efficient” and “compete” and “success.”
Proscriptive or Descriptive
Let’s grab an older example of the same leap. When Adam Smith, the founder of economics, analyzed and described human economic behavior (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), we (as humans) made a choice what to do with the new information. Smith, a moral philosopher, was being descriptive. He was explaining what humans do.
But as time went on, businessmen worked to cleave to Smith’s principles. We somehow stopped using the information to understand, and began adhering to its principles as the “right” way to act. We made the jump from accepting the work as descriptive to using it proscriptively.
Adam Smith wasn’t telling us to be cutthroat jerks in business. We’ve been doing that since the first people traded with strangers.
The West’s relationship with the work of Charles Darwin follows the same pattern. We took it too far. We went beyond the descriptive science of “oh, that’s how genetic selection works” to actions based on our understanding of that science. That is, we started using the knowledge proscriptively.
Theories of cultural evolution were used to bolster already existing colonial regimes; understandings of genetics were used to support eugenics programs. “Science” was used to bolster decisions that were thought of as hardheaded in a competitive world, but were sometimes more hardhearted than anything else.
We can (and do) look back on these decisions and say that it was “bad science.” It would be closer to the truth to say that this was a bad use of scientific knowledge.
Science, at its root, is an incredibly effective way of understanding some aspects of the world and generating certain types of knowledge. It promotes objectivity, rational thinking, and collaboration. Science is good stuff.
On the other hand, science is a human tool, and no tool is the right one to solve every problem. Science is not the philosopher’s stone, nor the universal solvent. Science is not alchemy. It won’t fix all our problems; that’s our job.
How Do We Decide?
Making such a leap – from using science as a method of understanding the world to using scientific knowledge for gaining a competitive advantage – is based on certain assumptions about what people are, and aren’t.
In order to effectively use scientific knowledge to guide our actions, we allow it to make certain decisions for us. Those assumptions depend on the field of study. Economists might see people as rational maximizers. Biologists might see us as competitive DNA delivery systems. Astrophysicists, as a group, see us as a small part of the universe. Anthropologists see humans as cultural creatures.
We are all these things, all at once, and more. Science, at its best, gives us systematically verified knowledge. But it doesn’t tell us what to do with all this knowledge. We have to figure that out for ourselves.