Three degrees of separation: church – state – science?

It has been long time since in many societies church and state became strictly separated. That is, only the state is allowed to use violence when people act in ways that aren’t allowed. What is and what is not allowed is decided upon according to democratic ways in which (almost) any person can participate to some extent. Sure, church still states what people should do and think and can still punish its members – exclusion from church still is a strong punishment to many – but only within the limits of what the state allowes. People who do not want to belong to a church are legally free to leave.

Ever since church and state were separated, people have more freedom in what to think and do. But, this is not as such in all domains of society. Science and state are not separated. In schools, some parts of the curriculum students are exposed to are subject of political debate. This is what brought Paul Feyerabend ((P. Feyerabend. Against Method, Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knoiwledge. NLB, London, 1975.)) to argue for a strict separation between state and science. If the people of Florida want their children to be taught voodoo in science class, this should be possible, according to him.

I think this is an interesting, but somewhat troublesome issue. Indeed, Feyerabend argues that scientific progress is best achieved by using any method available to mankind. That includes voodoo, and if science is indeed brought further by the application of `any method available to mankind’, this includes voodoo in science class. But – as far as I’m aware – this is not what present day science is. And thus shouldn’t be taught in the science class as being part of science.

But, is this the same as what Feyerabend argues? Scientists should indeed be free from state. If someone seriously wants to investigate voodoo, or whatever else, as a source of knowledge, he or she should be able to do so. Especially if there are good reasons / indications to do so. But, Feyerabend states that `if the people’ want something to be taught, it should be possible. But, in Western societies the `vox populi’ is articulated by means of democracy. That is: politics should then decide what needs to be taught in science class, and what not.

This appears to be an inconsistency in the work of Feyerabend I fail to understand. Why would he want to separate state and science and at the same time want to use the democratic system to decide what children are taught? I think that the problem lies in the distinction between what science `does’ and what happens in the classroom. Science needs to make progress and accordingly should be allowed to walk new paths. In science class however, students need to get acquainted with what happens in science. No scientific progress needs to be made.

This is a small but important distinction. It leads me to conclude that I agree with Feyerabend that state and science should be separated (to a large extend, I would like to add), but I disagree that the political democracy should be able to decide what is the science that is taught in science class. Politics should decide whether or not science should be instructed, scientist should decide on what science covers.

2 comment on “Three degrees of separation: church – state – science?

  • Feyerabend was (or is?) a nice provocation against stuffy scientificism… but beyond that… it’s hard to take him seriously, if you are a practicing scientist, that is. Things like voodoo are beyond the reach of science, because they deny the “experiment-thing”: by definition voodoo or religious experiences are not repeatable, or person-independent. Feyerabend tried to define science based on results, and then of course, anything has produced aproximations to truth, so anything goes. But science is better defined as a method.

    Now, about separations… so you would like to get a blank check as scientist? get your pay and your lab equipment, but no indication whatsoever on what is desirable (and what is not) for you to research? I consider such extreme a bit… too extreme. Think in experiments on people. Should scientist have the right to do them? And it does not happen like that anywhere, anyway. As scientist you ask your budget for research from society. We research on social cohesion (in sociology) or about global warming (in ecology) because those are relevant societal issues. Do you really think that the investment that society does paying universities must not be accounted for? I think it should be. Scientists are part of the society. NOw, how much control, that is a important question. But no control at all seems to me wrong.

  • I think that I didn’t express myself all that clearly. I wrote that I tend to agree with the separation between state and science, while adding “to a large extent”. I agree that I wrote this in a by-sentence, but I meant it seriously.

    Additionally, what I wrote on separation between state and science was focussed more on state deciding on what is science, not what science is important. That is, I think, an important distinction.

    Obviously, I agree that the right discussion should be on “how much control”. To that, I would like to say that science should have more freedom than in the present-day situation.

Leave a Reply