Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alvin M. Weinberg - “Science and Trans-Science” - Minerva 10 (1972); 209-22

For Weinberg, the relationship between science and society is more complicated than the view that science provides the means and politics provides the ends.  He wants to introduce the notion of trans-science, the idea that there are questions of fact that can be asked of science, but cannot be answered by science.  Questions such as the biological effects of low-level radiation, or the probability of extremely improbable events.  And even entire disciplines have aspects of trans-science, engineering judgment, for example, or simply the elements of scientific uncertainty that are inherent in any advancing technology.  He also considers the social sciences as trans-scientific, since we can’t predict human behavior (no psycho-history á la Asimov), because the subject matter is too variable for rationalization.  There is also the axiology of science.  Questions of scientific value, criteria for scientific choice, the valuation of different styles of science, moral and aesthetic judgments.  All of these fall into the realm of trans-science.

But how do we settle the issues of trans-science?  How do we weigh the benefits and risks of new technology?  There is the political process, which establishes priorities and allocates resources.  There are adversary procedures.  The formal, legal and quasi-legal proceedings where opposing views are heard before some sort of board empowered to decide the issue.  But in order for these processes to work, scientists must help define the science/trans-science border and inject some intellectual discipline into the republic of trans-science.

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