Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Science and Wisdom - Scientia et Sapientia - Vaira Vike-Freiberga (On the benefits and deficits of science) - 238 LexiLine Journal

Professor Vaira Vike-Freiberga is the current President of Latvia, a
country which - after a half-century of occupation - obtained its
independence from the former Soviet Union in 1990. A biography was
written about Vike-Freiberga and her unusual life recently by Ausma
Cimdina as the book, In the Name of Freedom (Jumava (www.Jumava.lv),
Riga, ISBN 9984-05-685-6), a book which was just sent to me to read
by my good friend Prof. Rolands Rikards, one of the world's leading
authorities on composite materials at Riga Technical University (see
http://www.lza.lv/scientists/rikardsr.htm). In that book, Cimdina
writes (pp. 107-109) about a 1991 speech held by Vike-Freiberga
entitled "Scientia et sapientia" [science and wisdom] in which Vike-
Freiberga discussed the nature of science in our modern world,
arguing that science without wisdom was useless.

[beginning of quoted excerpts from the book]
"In her speech, [Vike-Freiberga, herself a much respected mainstream
scientist in her fields of study] integrated both an affirmation and
a criticism of science ... [stating that] ... during the Soviet
regime, the humanities had adopted the totalitarian government's
attitudes and its authoritarian versions of the "truth." ... Vaira
Vike-Freiberga presented a thumbnail history of science.... She
emphasized that the evolution of scientific thinking has gone hand
in hand with the evolution of the humanities, and that the
historical processes of democratisation and European-style democracy
as such are basically a product of the scientific mode of thinking.
At the same time, however, the speaker criticised some aspects of
science... [presenting] examples from the history of the sciences in
Europe and from contemporary scientific developments that do not
speak well of science. The roots of these negative aspects were to
be found in science itself ... not outside it.

... [In the] Middle Ages ... "mouldy parchments" were copied from
generation to generation, full of "wild and untested foolishness".
In the early years of the European universities ... authorised
knowledge "had degenerated into petty disputes" ... intellectual
debates "were reduced to claims from each side based on quotations
from ancient authorities, each side trying to line up as many dead
supporters for their views as possible." [T]he recognized
authorities of the day frequently oppressed their colleagues with
their power and authority (when they did not persecute them). The
history of scientific discovery has been, to a great extent, a
battle against authorities, real or bogus, throughout human history.
As a result, many of the world's greatest thinkers have suffered
tragic fates. The Professor's remarks about science in the Middle
Ages resonated powerfully with the more recent history of the
humanities and the social sciences in the Soviet Union. The USSR
claimed to be the embodiment of a scientific worldview, and yet was
anti-humanistic in orientation.

[T]hese were not problems limited to the Soviet era or the Middle
Ages, but [were] a deeply rooted tendency that is a fundamental part
of science and scientists to this day. "Scientists are most fond of
posing as 'scientific authorities'," she said. "They bitterly
denounce other kinds of knowledge and ridicule scientific evidence
as unsubstantiated and misleading, as if science could presume to
offer absolute truths. Such attitudes are actually incompatible with
the tentative nature and inevitable ambiguity of scientific
discoveries, which are often controversial and are constantly being
replaced by others." Excessive 'scientism'... is particularly
dangerous in countries "governed by political short-sightedness and
economic greed, where science and technology are subject to
irresponsible and irrational mandates." She also discussed social
self-defence mechanisms that offer protection against abuses of
scientific discovery or application. She reminded her audience that
even in the "so-called developed countries, there is an overall
disposition toward science that is, at best, ambivalent."

Her lecture "Scientia et sapientia" [indicated that] ... Only the
wise and strong dare to be self-critical and the same must apply to
science if it is to succeed."
[end of quoted excerpts from the book]

My comment is - I could not have written that better if I had
written it myself.

Many mainstream scientists in the West - if asked - would distance
themselves greatly from previous authoritarian Soviet academic
practices, not realizing how closely to the former Soviet model the
actual "practice" of science in the West operates - when pushed.
Just try to rock the mainstream scientific boat and you will see
this "authoritarian science" in operation quite quickly. On the
other hand "if you join the club", get "your party card", "mind your
p's and q's", and "praise the authorities that be", your academic
life can be quite enjoyable and "successful". I have been bucking
this system for 30 years. Nothing has changed.

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