The Science Crusade

Science is, of course, morally and epistemically good irrespective of the methods employed or use to which it is put. Since there is no science or scientific enterprise that is bad anyone who opposes it must be in the grip of moral or epistemological confusion or possibly even both. And often these individuals are not simply hopelessly confused but also bad people; their opposition to science flows from their beastly nature. The enlightened among us should count ourselves lucky, for it only us who recognise that the goodness of science is, akin to the indubitable Cartesian knowledge of the existence of the thinking self, clear and distinct.

Now, I don’t believe this, but it seems that a certain Mr. Ed Owen at the Guardian does. The fact that the article is rhetorically entitled “The Anti-Science Brigade” is perhaps revealing of Owen’s belief in the inculpability of science; if he believed it were sometimes a good thing to oppose science he’d of had no reason to choose that particular title. Thankfully, for most people the value of science is dependent on the ends to which it is put and the methods that it employs. The fact that it is not per se normatively committed but only becomes so through practice means that potential investigations, projects and methods are subjected to ethical scrutiny and normative assessment. Perhaps Mr Owen really knows this and the above is just an instance of rhetorical fervour. Either way, this is no impressive start; on the second construal of what’s going on Owen comes out as a sophist and on the first as seriously mistaken.

So, yes, the article starts badly and I’m afraid to say that it continues on in the same baleful manner. Owen’s main bellyache is with animal rights groups and their illogical and anti-scientific position with regards vivisection. Here he is on the issue:

But extreme ideology is alive and well among peaceful groups that remain committed to a cause which defies logical and scientific analysis.

The language of mainstream animal rights groups reveals how far detached some of them are from rational debate.

Presumably the ideology is extreme because it defies logical and scientific analysis and enjoins criminal action. Indeed, this may well all be true but we are provided with no real reason why to think it so. Unsurprisingly, the only argument Owen deploys is the benefit that vivisection brings to humans. Now, as far as I’m aware some of the anti-vivisectionists are questioning precisely this fact so Owen cannot simply make the contrary claim without begging the question at issue. Here he must provide us some reason, besides appeals to common belief, another logical fallacy, that this is actually the case.

However, even if this were to be the case, Owen has also begged the crucial question. The issue of vivisection actually turns on the question of animal worth. If some animals that we currently experiment on have moral value then experimenting on them might not be justified even if doing so benefits humans. In this case it is useless to simply point to the benefits that such experiments confer on certain humans since ethical reflection is not such a simple enterprise. I cannot simply torture a thousand cats because doing so brings me some health benefits without first determining the kind of moral value, if any, that cats have.

This question, that of the moral worth of non-human animals, is precisely what needs to be determined before anyone can decide on the justifiability of vivisection. It is this question that is continually and myopically overlooked, as if it has somehow been camouflaged to evade scrutiny. But, despite the rhetorical flourishes like those of Owen, it is only by learning to recognise and address this issue that any progress will be made on the justifiability of vivisection.

2 Responses to “The Science Crusade”

  1. 1 harry February 4, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    interesting… i presume ed owen is the writer of the bad science column?

    sorry to wade in where my galoshes are sadly more shallow than the water, but i thought i’d try and swim in this moral puddle.

    science morally good vs science. i think we can all get on board this one. but perhaps worth noting that science properly simply means “knowing”… it is the opposcite of ignorance- “failing/refusing to recognise”. so of course philosophy is part of science… no? this doesn’t change your point, but it did seem interesting to me as i read.

    i had another point, but saturday night has recurred to make me forget it. i like the
    stylish anti-rhetorical flourish rhetorical flourish at the end. oh the sweet irony.

  2. 2 Ed February 4, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Hi Harry,

    Quick note: No, Ed Owen isn’t the author of the Bad Science column, that’s the legendary Ben Goldacre. There’s actually a link to his site in the Blogroll section of this one. I’ll let Jim reply to your main point though!


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This site is written by Ed and Jim and occasionally others.


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