Science doesn’t always have the final word

Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and the author of several books including Freedom Regained and The Edge of Reason

If we want science to become a more fundamental part of our cultural discourse, scientists have to develop the ability to contribute their findings to debates on issues where science does not have the final word. They need to engage with non-scientists rather than simply try to popularise scientific ideas. Many do this well already, of course, but more could be done.

All specialists face a dilemma: stick to what you know and you end up only talking among yourselves; talk to others and you end up talking about what you don’t know.

Scientists are increasingly dissatisfied with the first option but his has led many to impale themselves on the other horn of the dilemma. I see this most clearly when scientists start talking about free will, as though a scientific knowledge of the workings of the brain completely removes any philosophical understanding of the nature of free will.

There is one practical question that anyone organising or participating in a public engagement event could do to help this. Taking the free will example: does what we want the scientist to talk about take them beyond the domain of their specialised knowledge? If the answer is yes then the scientist has the choice not to go there, to speak with extreme caution and explicit caveats, or to try to include a complementary expert in the discussion. Usually, the third option would be the ideal one. Nothing can become part of the culture unless it recognises that it is just a part and so has to find a way of connecting and working with other parts of society.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and the author of several books including Freedom Regained and The Edge of Reason. He is co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine and tweets from @microphilosophy

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