When Science Should Be the Arbiter of Moral Conflict

If the last few months have shown us anything, they’ve shown us that the great moral divide is growing in this country. The hot button issues – gay marriage, gun control, abortion, to name a few – are the main ingredients in a messy soup of political discourse that is more reminiscent of a schoolyard fight than a reasoned debate on the merits of choosing one course of action over another. In fact, if you listen to policymakers and advocates on both sides of these issues, you hear a lot of hyperbole. Phrases like “the sanctity of marriage,” “stealing guns,” and “baby killers” go head to head with “homophobia,” “massacre prevention programs,” and “protecting uteruses.” On the one hand, I understand the knee-jerk reaction to respond in kind when the other side tries to defend their point of view with emotional appeals and even untruths. On the other hand, not only do these statements undermine civil discourse, but they also serve to get the populace more embroiled in their way of thinking, increasing the distance between opposing sides.

Many people believe we will never bridge the moral – and thus political – divide in the United States. I’m a little more optimistic (some may say Pollyanna) about this. You see, I believe in a higher power that does have the ability to provide this country with answers. Some may say it even speaks to me directly. It’s called science.

As a scientist myself, I hold a deep faith in the scientific method. The rigors of systematic investigation take many years to learn and the expectations are clear. There are common rules that scientists follow to ensure they are ethically investigating a hypothesis. The scientific community holds its members to standards of a peer review process designed to ensure the highest quality data are being obtained and shared. When those standards are violated – and infrequently it happens – there are consequences. Furthermore, the data generated through scientific inquiry are designed to help us (as in all of us – not just scientists) better understand our world so that we can make more informed decisions about, well, pretty much everything. You will be hard pressed to find an issue about which there isn’t scientific research. And yet, when you look at the policymaking process in general, and specifically policy discussions of contentious moral issues, scientific data are glaringly absent. What’s worse, there has been an active attempt to prevent us from conducting science in key areas of debate, with gun violence and stem cell research ranking high on the list of banned topics.

Where emotions run high, it’s the perfect place for science to enter the debate in all of its unbiased, unemotional, data-driven glory. Let me be clear. I am not referring to “studies” put forth by entities that have deep pockets and big dogs in the fight. I’m referring to science done well, vetted by the scientific community, and presented or published in peer-reviewed venues. I’m talking about data that simply are what they are without a stake in the ground other than to provide information. I recognize that those whose moral convictions are not supported by the data take issue with this approach – hence the aforementioned bans. But we cannot continue to let science take a back seat when we are entrenched in some of the weightiest moral debates of our times: our rights to safety in our homes and neighborhoods, our rights to privacy in our health care, our rights to equality in our marriages, parenting options, and pay, our rights to choose freely what happens to our bodies. And every one of us must be a strong advocate for science’s place in our political discourse if our decision-making process has any hope of changing.

So I challenge you. If you have an issue you care deeply about, study it. Google Scholar is your friend. Find out who are the top researchers in that area and send them an email. Ask for copies of papers or for some bullet points on what their research has found. We scientists will happily share our data for your personal edification – it’s the academic version of fan mail and believe me, we don’t get much of it, so when it comes, we’re excited and want to help. Then pick two or three talking points and use them in debates with your friends and family. Share these points of fact with decision makers. Tweet, blog, Facebook, and Pin them if you have to. For every emotional outcry thrown in your direction, respond with a calm but clear factual statement. Demand that facts serve as the foundation for our national decision-making by making facts the core of your daily conversations. If we elevate our conversations locally, over time it will have a global effect. And then science will assume its rightful place at the policymaking table and serve as the arbiter it should be when values collide.

The Broad Side’s newest contributor Leigh Ann Simmons, Ph.D. is a writer, speaker, teacher, and activist who has spent her career working with and on behalf of women. Her professional experience spans 15 years in academic and medical research, therapy and coaching with individuals, couples, families and groups, university-level teaching, and advocating for those in need. Currently an associate professor in the Duke University School of Nursing, Leigh Ann has published and presented nationally and internationally on issues affecting women, including health and well-being, access to health care, reducing health disparities, job flexibility, and social welfare policy.  In addition to her work at Duke, Leigh Ann provides individual health coaching to women of all ages and consulting to healthcare providers on working with patients to improve health behaviors. In her spare time, Leigh Ann enjoys eating and playing in her hometown of Durham, NC, yoga, pilates, shopping with her mom, and spending quality time with the men in her life – her husband, son, and chocolate lab. She aspires to be known by a mononym before she retires. Learn more about Leigh Ann at leighannsimmons.com.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of her employer.

Image via iStockphoto/Kalawin Jongpo

  • Cathey Huddleston-Casas

    Amen sister!

  • The problem is that there are so many people who seem to not believe in science. I will never comprehend that. I’m not an atheist. I’m Christian, but I believe that science and God exist side by side. I believe that God created science – whoever or whatever God is – and therefore, science is something we should be embracing, not denouncing as the devil’s work.

    But that’s where the moral divide comes in. People have been taught to fear science that goes against the things they have been taught to believe. Willful ignorance in the name of “faith” is what we fight. I always try to back up my arguments with facts and proven science, but moral fear-mongering makes family and friends tune it all out, like a kid with his fingers in his ears singing “LA LA LA! I can’t hear you!”

  • John

    Had problems after you said “I hold a deep faith in the scientific method”

    I have NO faith in the scientific method, because that would be against the scientific method. I believe in it. Deeply believe in it. Not on faith, never in faith.

    While Christina shows not all xtians are crazy. Science and faith are polar opposites.
    This has been shown time and time again. They cannot be reconciled. One demands proof, one denys proof.

    She is ‘bang on the nail’ with faith vs Science in the USA, and as a Canadian, it scares me.

    • Leigh Ann Simmons

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I do want to say that there are secular uses for the word “faith” (e.g., I have faith in someone to complete a job, or I have faith in my abilities), and that was my intention here. Faith = belief, so like you, I deeply believe in the scientific method. Moreover, I don’t intend to let the religious faithful have the corner market on the word faith. We scientists can use it too in all of its secular beauty.

      • John

        It was a little tonge in cheek, but re-reading it, it did not come across that way!

        I think I just finished reading disturbing xtian anti-thought/science propaganda.
        *note to self: do not post after reading disturbing writtings*

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