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Science Is Not Self-Correcting

John Kelleher

I can imagine certain scientists, among them the now-deceased but famous 'guide' to a long-ago PBS series on the glories of 'science' (that 'guide' since exposed as a shameless politicizer of 'science', exemplified by his press-canny advocacy of his, as it emerged, scientifically-dubious but politically-salient theory of 'nuclear winter') who might rather strenuously profess that science is the name of a narrative whose eventual complete success we already know in advance. And I know active researchers who also have already worked the matter out to their satisfaction. How stupid could I be, to imagine that science is not self-correcting?

Nevertheless, there is a different way to view the phrase, "science is self-correcting." That is, the phrase, "science is self-correcting," is not precisely incorrect. It's even worse than incorrect. The phrase instead might be seen as literally uninterpretable; that is, the phrase could be seen to possess no actual content, so that its meaning can not be ascertained.

For there is no such thing as 'science'. There is no 'self' to 'science' that can render science 'self-correcting.' There are only -- ever -- the judgments and actions of scientists. 'Science' is a term that is a reification of what in reality are personal, and thus fundamentally moral, acts by human beings.

There is no mechanism, called 'science' or otherwise, that will allow a further apprehension of reality even despite the immoral or misguided personal acts of men. There is no 'marketplace', no social process, statistical or otherwise, that will always, or 'in time', 'self-correct', because such putative mechanisms not only make unthinkable, inconsiderable, the death of science as an enterprise, but also and far more importantly, completely, if perhaps unthinkingly, remove man as a personal moral agent from the very heart of scientific inquiry.

Put differently, there is no magic thing, whether 'Out There', or Deep Inside Ourselves, that will keep reality close to us, even when we quite deliberately walk away from it. And we can always walk away, individually, to be sure, but also collectively. Life is much, much deadlier, and riskier, and requires far more bravery, than any possible interpretation of the phrase, "science is self-correcting" could ever encompass.

Substitute "democracy is self-correcting" for the above; there is no difference in what the phrase leaves out, what it makes unthinkable. Note the same substitution of false reassurance for the ceaseless need for skepticism and for the personal moral acts -- in time, not in some ideal and eternal realm -- of real human beings.

To say that 'science' "tends" to "self-correct" is thus not a prediction of what Will Be, but an assessment, wrong or right, of a current enterprise of men: that the enterprise is, at the moment, or has been at certain specified moments previously, in relatively good moral order. Some of us were weak; some were confused, even delusional; none of us were insanely smart; but slowly, our desire for reality, our love of it beyond ourselves, slowly taught us, bolstered our weakness, removed our confusion, made us smarter. That, and not 'self-correction', is what occurred.

But to make such a phrase a prediction about the future, to repeat, inevitably is to make science a mechanism that operates outside of human personal moral acts, and, we again warn, the price of this false reassurance that "science will be OK, no matter what" is the disintegration of even the thought that men can, and must, make personal moral judgments that can have real consequences, for both good and ill. It is the abdication of human freedom for a false refuge from the terror of truly screwing it up so much that even Daddy can't fix it.

If this be so -- since this be so -- then that puts the future of science forever in the hands of mere men, who are free, not merely to be mistaken or weak, but to be immoral with their acts, and not once, but repeatedly, and, at least in principle, without surcease.

Science is a much freer and more remarkable activity than we sometimes imagine. It is certainly not a machine, social or otherwise, 'out there', that we can set and forget. And it is not the mechanism by which we can successfully remove ourselves from the terror of our freedom.

Science is not precisely about understanding, nor can it be entirely subsumed into our drive for power and control. It requires bravery, and free moral acts, in which the scientist in the end allows reality to matter more than himself, more than his theories, more than his status.

Every time that a human being fails to say, "Let reality matter more than I," at that very moment, all real science in him vanishes from the face of the earth.

And we can all do this. Repeatedly. We can instruct ourselves, individually, but also en masse, to forget that science involves bravery, moral acts, the risk of personal self-sacrifice. We can tell ourselves that science is instead the effective means by which we seek 'understanding' -- by which we will mean power and control. And we can tell ourselves, as we have so often, that therefore, every move toward power and control shall be interpreted as 'science'.

And science will, in that domain certainly, but in principle in every domain, once again vanish from the face of the earth.

Therefore, the activity that we currently call science, being ultimately free and moral, grounded not peripherally but fundamentally in personal moral acts of flesh-and-blood human beings, is ever precarious. All scientific activity shows both science's underlying staggering nobility, and its terrible unremitting precariousness.

This fundamental twin nobility and precariousness of science, we may hope, will persist in equal measure at the very least until Gabriel's trumpet blows that one last time. For the alternative to facing that science is not unkillable, that it can truly die, and we can truly kill it; that is, the alternative to the simultaneous nobility and precariousness of science, is the dissolution of man, and all his freedom, and of every single actual good thing man has ever done or dreamed.

Science is not self-correcting. We can kill it dead, and walk away, and think ourselves fine fellows. Always.

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