Are Scientists Human? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 18 November 2010 22:18

Though the general outlines of the song are the same, each individual song sparrow ornaments and elaborates its song in uniquely creative ways.  The originality of each sparrow’s song depends on learning the basics of sparrow music from its parents.  Lewis Thomas writes that if the young bird “hears the proper song [as a nestling] he will have it in mind for life, ornamenting it later with brief arpeggios so that it becomes his own, particular, self-specific song.”  Deaf birds, Thomas says, “sing nothing beyond a kind of buzz.”

How do we know?  Because scientists have punctured the ear drums of young birds to observe how they develop.  It is, Thomas thinks, “one of the saddest tales in experimental biology.”

Perhaps; but University of Michigan law professor Joseph Vining wants us to imagine a sadder tale.  As the title of his 2004 book, The Song Sparrow and the Child: Claims of Science and Humanity (University of Notre Dame Press), indicates, he wants us to imagine the same experiment performed on a human child.  Scientists of course don’t perform such experiments.  They wait for the right subject to appear: “a deaf child, not a child that has been deafened; a child that happens to have been locked away, not a child who is experimentally locked away; a child who dies, not a child who is killed; a child who dies as to whom adequate permission can be obtained to slice and stain her brain.”

But why? Vining wants to know.  Why not puncture the eardrums of a small child or slice up his brain to learn how language acquisition works?  What objections do scientists have to using human subjects for experiments?  Why do they draw a line between the child and the song sparrow?

Vining’s question is acute, of course, because many scientists, some philosophers, and anti-humanist theorists say that there is no such line.  Philosopher John Searle: “human beings . . . are part of the biological order like any other organisms.”  Nobel laureate Francois Jacob: “The qualities, functions and development of a living organism  . . . simply express the interaction between its components. . . . Biology has demonstrated that there is no metaphysical entity hidden behind the word ‘life.’” Quotations could be multiplied.

And his question is acute because the line between sparrow and child has been denied in practice and not only in theory, and in living memory.  In the mid-twentieth century, scientists in Manchuria used human subjects, including newborn infants, in frostbite experiments.  In the 1940s, German scientists put pre-adolescent epileptics into pressure chambers to see what would happen.  Examples could also be multiplied, at appalling length.

The connection between total theory in science and totalitarian tyranny is not accidental.  A theory is total insofar as it “circles back and explains itself and its genesis.  It explains the theorist proposing the theory as well as those to whom the theory is proposed. . . . With nothing outside it, nothing partial about it, with those who think, talk, and argue about it included within its term, it is ultimate, final, closed.”  Total theories deal in “alls” and “everythings” and “nothing buts.”  Total theorist sneer at anyone who questions the totality of the theory, express “amazement” especially at the persistence of “spirit” and “theism” among laymen and, horror of horrors, among scientists themselves.

Total theories profess disbelief in the line between the child and the sparrow.  Totalitarian social and scientific experiments grow from the same disbelief.  Totalitarian systems treat “others as the mere products of systems and as material to be manipulated or eliminated.”  Others were treated like convicts, shorn of identity and dress, assigned a number, isolated behind thick incommunicative walls.

And yet, Vining notes, scientists today find the idea of conducting experiments on children so deeply repugnant that they have even refused to use the data produced by Nazi experiments.  As an attorney, trained to assess all available evidence and not merely the most juicy bits, Vining finds the contrast between theory and practice revealing.  When words and actions are both taken into account, it appears that scientists are not being entirely candid when they propose their total theories.  In spite of their professed disbelief in the line, they maintain it.  Of the total theories that scientists toss off, Vining says bluntly, “I do not think they believe what they seem to say.”

Exposed, scientists have some options.  They might let totalizing theory have its totalitarian way.  They might persist in inconsistency, but in another, more chilling direction by identifying others as nothing more than matter and process but refusing to apply their theory to themselves.  Or, Vining hopes, they might recognize that they don’t think about themselves and their theories the way they think about the world in general.  If scientists recognized the incongruity, the infection of total theory can be turned around: “the way in which totalitarians treat themselves, responsible, individual, facing death and seeking meaning, can spread out to others.”

Vining is far from antiscientific.  Scientists’ lack of candor, he thinks, is the source of the antiscientific rumble that scientists so disdain and fear.  Scientists appear to be “hiding something” and “what the scientist may be hiding is an actual belief that there is a difference between the child and the song sparrow.”  Science is necessary, “like the necessity of eating or sleeping.”  Human beings thirst to know and to know truly, and that slaking that thirst is the work of science.  But science doesn’t work the way scientists often think that it does.

In demystifying scientific method, Vining distinguishes between “legal” methods of investigation – pouring over text, close reading, assessing evidence, weighing claims and counter-claims, evaluating the credibility of testimony and the witness who offers it – and “scientific” modes of exploration, which involve empirical observation and repeatable experiment.

Though there are real differences, Vining argues that they are finally more similar than different.  “Real” scientists, after all, have to be identified, and that is a social process, performed by scientists.  No scientist ever performs all the experiments on which he relies; many scientists spend precious little time in the lab.   They rely on the “legal” method of studying texts – articles, lab reports, books – and that means they are relying on testimony, trusting the good faith of the scientists who write reports.  Scientists have to assert, persuade, argue; they rely on the assent of fellow scientists.  Like lawyers in court, they have to establish facts in a situation where facts are contested.  Neither the lawyer nor the scientist can “let the facts fend for themselves.”  They have to appeal, and the need for appeal leaves open the possibility of counter-appeals, assent always allows the possibility of dissent.  Most fundamentally, both science and “legal” disciplines operate within the same human constraints: “we are more than one, and, when one of us speaks, he or she is only one.”  Scientists are witnesses giving testimony.  Expert witnesses, to be sure.  But still more or less reliable witnesses who speak what they know in a world where others know other things.

In the end, Vining’s rich and provocative book shows that scientists are in fact human.  But it also profoundly challenges scientists to stop talking as if they were not.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 27 November 2010 16:26