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What is the cost of fusing knowledge and power?

The vocation of the knower is transformed by the incentives that drive the world’s material transformation; the scientist takes his place among the elites of society, with a legitimate expectation of sharing in the rewards of productivity and the privileges of status. 

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I do not know whether global warming — sorry, climate change — is making major hurricanes worse and more frequent. Some good people seem very convinced it does, others explain to me the grounds for skepticism. I shall not decide this issue for you today.

What interests me is how science is politicized. “Science” means “knowledge;” it does not mean “action” or “policy.” And scientific knowledge is not the same as action, or policy, or morality, or commitment. Karl Marx said that his scientific knowledge of “history” was not about understanding the world but about changing it. But for us regular human beings who do not claim god-like power, the task of understanding the world is the prior task, and one we never really complete. What makes science, science is the ongoing quest for an ever-better, more accurate, more certain understanding of the way things are and how things work. This quest is a big job, an endless job, but an intrinsically satisfying one for those endowed with the capacity and the vocation for seeking such knowledge. It’s a different job from that of transforming, or reforming, preaching, mobilizing. A scientist on a soapbox or at the pulpit is not at that moment a scientist.

The problem of what we should do, indeed, what we can do, as individuals and communities, to change things is a further question, which science cannot by itself decide. Still, the current politicization of science has deep roots in modern civilization. At the beginning of the modern age, the French philosopher Rene Descartes proclaimed a new understanding of science as a method aimed, not as before at pure knowledge and its intrinsic satisfactions, but at the mastery of nature, the effecting of “all things possible” for the purpose of human security and comfort. Descartes was echoing an Englishman, Francis Bacon, to whom is attributed the idea, “knowledge is power.”

The reason we’re concerned today about the effects of human production and consumption on the natural world is that Bacon’s and Descartes’ plan worked. As a later Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed, “we have built enormous machines of happiness and pleasure.” These machines include not only scientific technologies that ease our material condition, but new political and moral sciences as well, social technologies, one might say. Modern social technology has liberated us from what are now considered unproductive moral and religious restraints and released enormous energies for the creation of a new world. The quest for knowledge turned from philosophy and theology to social and material technology. Knowledge embraced power, apparently boundless power.

Today we rightly wonder about the “boundless.” The fusion of knowledge and power has its costs. The vocation of the knower is transformed by the incentives that drive the world’s material transformation; the scientist takes his place among the elites of society, with a legitimate expectation of sharing in the rewards of productivity and the privileges of status. But now we look over our gigantic “happiness” machine — a whole world incentivized to increase personal freedom and comfort — and we worry, very understandably, about unintended consequences to our physical and (I would say) moral environment. But here’s the thing: The very science that we have transformed in order to induce it to transform our world, we now look to as an authority on how to check or control this transformation. And we somehow imagine that this vast machinery, this institutionalized technological science, powered by the fuel of human appetite and ambition, can now serve us as a serene, dispassionate moral authority. For three centuries we have recruited scientists and other “experts” with promises of wealth, status and power — and now we look to them as saintly moral arbiters. “We paid you handsomely to change the world,” we propose to our scientific elites, “and now we look to you to change it back a little, but out of pure altruism, with no regard to your own power or status or income.”

This is not to say that scientists are worse than other people; it’s just to say that they are people, some better, and some worse. The moral and political views of the “scientific community” should be understood to be, well, views of a certain community or class or status group, one with its own perspectives conditioned by its own interests. When you see the 1,000th ad on TV for the latest pharmaceutical miracle with the latest nifty acronym (followed by all the high-speed warnings and disclaimers, of course), do you think, “well, how nice of those altruistic medical researchers to be staying up late thinking only of my own personal well-being!”? Keep that in mind when a certified “scientist” suggests how we should run the world.

Once knowledge has tasted power, it is not likely to be satisfied with the pure quest for understanding.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.