Weird Science

In the latest issue of Discover—a magazine devoted, allegedly, to “Science, Technology and the Future”—Kristin Ohlson purports that “[n]euroscience offers new ways to approach. . .moral questions, allowing logic to triumph over deep-rooted instinct.” Her article chronicles some of the work performed in the Harvard Moral Cognition Lab, where scientists have done their best to isolate the part of the brain most active when subjects are presented with heinous moral dilemmas: what would you do if you saw an unmanned hot dog cart barreling toward bicycle racers? If you and other villagers were hiding from soldiers, and your baby began to cry?

I am not sure that logic can “triumph” in either of these circumstances. First, one can use logic to defend an array of choices made in the above queries. How can logic lose? The article’s greater crime is that its tone derides the use of emotion when reaching difficult conclusions. Ohlson claims that when “the sirens of our emotions are sounding in unproductive ways, we can crank up the reasoning parts of our brain to make sound decisions.” Her “logic” appears sketchy at best. If we could simply shut off our emotions, I suspect we would never marry for love, or curse, or commit some sin or another. We see how well rationalism worked out for Benjamin Franklin, whose experiment in moral perfection was a beautiful failure.

As a member of the Mississippi Humanities Council, I am occasionally called upon to define the humanities, or to justify their place in the curriculum, or validate their line in a budget. When we help people understand themselves and others and to place their lives in the larger context of the human condition, we’re generally dealing with the study of humanities. It is, perhaps, impossible to quantify how important it is for people to understand themselves, or to legitimize how much taxpayers should spend on the humanities. Yet Ohlson’s article reminds me of another crucial function humanists provide: bullshit detectors for bad science.

 

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