Will Science Remain Human? Experts Meeting

STI Experts Meetings are meetings with more or less a dozen top scholars from a variety of disciplines who discuss specific issues of current social significance. The “Will Science Remain Human?” Experts Meeting will discuss an incredibly topical and important issue for the future of science and our human societies: Frontiers of the Incorporation of Technological Innovations in the Biomedical Sciences.

Venue: Rome, University Campus Bio-Medico

Supporting Institution: Social Trends Institute

Dates: One day and a half, March 5-6, 2018

Confirmed speakers

Sandra Mitchell (University of Pittsburgh)

Paul Humphreys (University of Virginia)

Jean Gayon (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Mieke Boon (University of Twente)

William B. Hurlbut (Stanford University)

Alfredo Marcos (University of Valladolid)

Marta Bertolaso (Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome)

Mariachiara Tallacchini (Catholic University of The Sacred Heart)

Christopher Tollefsen (University of South Carolina)

Barbara Osimani (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and University of Ancona)

Don Howard (University of Notre Dame)

Organization

Chair: Marta Bertolaso

Co-Chair: Mariachiara Tallacchini

Organizing Team: Fabio Sterpetti, Cecilia Cecconi, Emanuele Serrelli

Introduction

The 2005 article ‘Why most Published Research Findings are False’ by J.P.A. Joannidis on PLOS Medicine is often cited as an example of the deep, serious and well-argued problems with scientific knowledge that the most sensitive thinkers and observers are starting to highlight and silently deal with. Since 2005, many things have continued changing and trending on, especially because technology is pervading known disciplines, and because technology-based fields that weren’t recognized as sciences (e.g., robotics) now are. While technically advanced analyses try to capture and tackle the issue of unreliable or unelaborable data, we want to pose a deeper problem which has to do, on the one hand, with objects of study (the ‘observables’) and, on the other hand, with science as a human activity.

Observables are more and more constructed and identified by means of technology. Scientific practice takes place in a context increasingly populated and executed by machines. This trend pairs well with an intellectual setup, namely positivistic naturalism, that champions an impoverished view of knowledge: on the one hand it equates human knowledge to scientific knowledge (this identification being reinforced in descriptions, reflections, defensive and promotional campaigns); at the same time, it represents scientific knowledge by hiding human responsibility, freedom, creativity and choice of observables and explananda that have always characterized it. The extreme risk for science is to become ‘stupid’ and sterile. Alessandro Giuliani recently wrote that complexity is insidious because easily misunderstood as ‘complication’. Complicated problems are rightly approached by brute force computation, whereas complexity is an urgent call for new kinds of simplicity that do not require the ‘total control’ of details, rather, they need choice of new ‘intelligently coarse grained’ points of view. This is a task for thoughtful and creative people, not for machines. But, in the current neo- positivist scientific culture, this is often seen as an obstacle.

Under the enthusiasm and the illusory idea that machines can substitute scientists in the crucial aspects of scientific practice, the current explosion of technological tools for scientific research (and of technological drivers thereof) seems to call for a renewed understanding of the human character of science. Critical thinking about the reliability and meaningfulness of data and information, if tackled from this point of view, acquire renewed urgency, thickness and complexity. More broadly, we need ‘biomedical humanities’ to be expanded as both an urgent domain of study and a fundamental component of science training. Traditionally interpreted as cultural add-ons to the science curriculum, biomedical humanities – with a strong role of philosophy and epistemology together with the social sciences – are now called to intervene right within the advancement of science, making the most of all thinking and operating resources that are being elaborated in the progress of biomedicine and healthcare.

A note about Bioethics

The particular acceptation of Bioehics underlying this proposal has two features.

First, it is a Bioethics that is first and foremost interested in understanding scientific practice, i.e., the praxis that generates and defines the operation by which science makes its objects emerge.

Second, it is a Bioethics characterized by a positive attitude towards science, trusting the history of science and the resource that, in science, may be promoted in order to orient science itself towards the common good for the future. This contrasts with a widespread negative attitude of some bioethical schools, which invest themselves with the task of contrasting the inevitably detrimental effects of scientific and technological development.