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The limits of science and the science of limits

Letter to the Editor Irish Farmers Journal 2007-10-20 Vol:60 No:42 p15. (There were a few errors introduced into the printed version)

I read with interest Dr Carmody’s comments about selective use of the terms scientific and unscientific by a number of agricultural leaders, both farmers and scientists.  I hope to clarify for your readers, what may appear on the face of it a rather confusing stand off between different groups of scientists calling each other unscientific.

Getting straight to the nub of the issue, when someone says that X, Y or Z practice is unscientific, most of the time the practice they are calling unscientific is in fact a moral or ethical position.  Now, there are very, very few things that are not ameliorable to the scientific method and the main one is determining the correctness of a moral or ethical position.  Science has enormous power to determine what the outcomes of a particular moral position will be, but the scientific method is completely powerless - it has absolutely no tools with which to even attempt to determine the correctness of a moral position.  Let me illustrate this with what is now an extreme, but only 200 year removed position.  “It is unscientific not to use slave labour on farms, they increase output, profit and improve the quality of life of farm families”.  I trust that the absurdity of this statement make the intellectual slight of hand that was used jump out.  The use of slaves is clearly an ethical issue not a scientific one.  However, if we were living 300 years ago at the height of the slave trade, were modern science around, it could be used to work out how to maximise the output of slaves, how to prevent them mutinying and what would happen if you stopped using slaves, but it could only be utterly silent on the issue of whether using slaves at all was the right or wrong thing to do.

Unfortunately, few scientists (and lay people) are educated in the philosophy of ethics or are even exposed to any such concepts during their training or work.  The idea of using slaves on farms is considered morally repugnant by the vast majority of people.  When a society overwhelmingly adopts a unified moral position, it is described by philosophers as a norm, i.e., what is considered normal.  When a norm has been in place for many decades, people stop seeing it as a moral decision, rather ‘it’s just how things are’, it's part of the wallpaper.  The idea that farms should maximise yield is a moral norm, one that has become ‘just how things are’ due to fifty years of the common agricultural policy stamping that ‘fact’ on every facet of farming life.  However, nowhere, in all of the scientific literature, is a study ‘proving’ that yield maximisation is the correct thing to do, because it’s impossible for science to do so.  The stand off between organic and non-organic it at root a moral issue, with organic farming having an ethic of environmental sustainability and non-organic farming one of profit and yield maximisation (I would contend that most real farmers have much wider ethics than this, if not they would be working in the finance sector, where profit maximisation is the only norm). Science can therefore be used by organics to maximise environmental sustainability and by non-organic farming to maximise profit and yield, just as science could be used to study find out how to best use slaves.  There is no real stand off, neither position is scientific and the other unscientific as science is forever mute about which is correct.

I would recommend the book ‘Impossibility: The limits of science and the science of limits’ by J. D. Barrow, to those wishing to learn more.

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Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.