Institute of the Weltethos Foundation
at the University of Tübingen

First slide

Science as Individual and Collective Learning

Scientific opinion has played a significant role in public debates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virologists and epidemiologists have assumed important global leadership responsibilities in humanity’s response to the crisis, while politicians around the world have sought, with varying degrees of success and popularity, to ground COVID policy decisions in science and scientific expertise.

Two years into the pandemic, civil society is now better equipped to offer informed critique of such policies. On the one hand, governments have often failed to explain the rationale for various policy decisions; at the same time, however, the gap between scientific and political language is sometimes larger than either scientists, politicians or the general public realise. Politics can be understood as the quest for general rules applicable to, and understood by, everyone. Science, meanwhile, progresses via specialization.  

Public pronouncements beyond one’s narrow field of expertise are hence a fraught business for natural and human scientists: virologists, for instance, cannot be expected to have more than a lay understanding of social psychology or the mechanisms of populist unrest. The expertise of the specialist, though necessary for sound collective decision-making, is in no way sufficient; the opinions of various experts must be weighed responsibly against each other in the political sphere.  

Individual scientific opinions are therefore, alas, ripe for selective instrumentalisation: one simply cites the experts one needs in order to achieve one’s prior political goal. Among the general public, a sense of mistrust towards both science and politics naturally develops.

Universities around the world are moving towards greater public and private oversight of research. Such developments naturally threaten the Humboldtian ideal of academic freedom. The introduction of specific normative parameters under the guise of ‘responsible science’ have, in practice, reduced all stakeholders’ room for manoeuvre. The much-discussed emergence of ‘Cancel Culture’ at Western universities can be understood as part of a broader societal push for greater collective control of individual experts.     

Other cultural changes within academia are also worth noting. The increasing propensity to value entire branches of learning in terms of their ability to attract third-party funding is gradually leading to a situation where work published in languages other than English, and with only indirectly quantifiable value-added potential, is systematically marginalized. The normative constraints and structural risks of such an approach to academic funding are not always explicit or consciously understood by all sides.  

Good science has always required a healthy culture of debate within the philosophy of science about the means and ends of science itself. The role of philosophy and ethics in a world governed by ever more sophisticated scientific instrumentation will in no way shrink. For however much it can be enriched by empirical knowledge, such philosophical debate is not grounded in the same sort of evidence as the natural or human sciences. 

Science is inseparable from curiosity: it entails a constant striving towards new insights. However fastidious a discipline’s methodological habits may for good reason become, room for creative development must always survive. This is not least because every method of inquiry entails an implicit and potentially limited (and limiting) worldview. It therefore behooves all sciences to reflect constantly on their own values and update their methods accordingly. In the burgeoning field of Artificial Intelligence in particular, we are discovering that there are no permanent and fixed horizons: the capacity for ongoing reflection on means and ends must be built, wherever possible, into AI technologies themselves, and actively fostered among those humans still doing the programming.   

Science lives and breathes from self-critique and normative reflection, not only from empirical observation. Publicly accessible language, moreover, must be developed in certain key areas where specialist knowledge needs to be digested by large numbers of people in a democratic polity. Even such public science, however, is no substitute for political debate itself. Science alone is no bulwark against populist conspiracy theories and Fake News phenomena, but done responsibly, it can help to make our societies more open, more resilient, and more likely to prosper.   

Ongoing ethical reflection on the theory and practice of science is hence a vital part of our collective public life, and will remain integral to the future success of the Weltethos project. Science is a collective striving enriched by the efforts of countless individuals, not towards a fixed horizon of knowledge or development, but towards the dynamic essence of reality itself.

Written by Prof. Dr. Dr. Ulrich Hemel (Director of the Global Ethic Institute)