Values honoured by scientists

Scientists derive their values from outside the realm of science

Values are the principles according to which we guide our decisions and actions.

These are some of the common values that underlie the accepted methodology of science:

  • Observations, conclusions and reports should be based on a rigorous respect for factual truth. Not only cheating and lying, but exaggerations and slanted presentations go counter to correct science.
  • Scientific discoveries should be submitted to peer review and should be available to colleagues working on related problems. Favouritism arising from racial prejudice, jealousy or personal bias damage the progress of international science.

Such principles do not derive their validity from science itself. They are laid down and accepted by human beings, who impose them on the scientific process. These principles are like an infra-structure of well paved highways on which the vehicles of the various sciences can run smoothly and effectively.


Scientists depend no less on outside values when considering the use that will be made of their scientific discoveries.

This is obvious from our everyday experience of how science operates. Nuclear power unleashes enormous energy. Nuclear physics by itself is entirely neutral to its use; the same energy can be employed for selfish purposes, for destruction of other human beings or for industry. The application of a scientific invention depends on the values scientists, and their masters, believe in. And, in the past, conscientious scientists have taken courageous decisions as human beings.

Scientists carry responsibility

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) kept the submarine he had designed a secret “on account of the evil nature of people who would practise assassination at the bottom of the seas”, as he tells us in his Notebooks.

Richard Boyle (1627-1691) withheld the formula of a poison he had worked out. John Napier (1550-1617) hid his blueprint for a new weapon. And Michael Faraday (1791-1867) refused to work on a poison gas to be used in the Crimean War.

Scientists know that the question they need to ask is not just: “Does this work?”, but, “Am I allowed to use it? Am I doing the right thing?” This is a question of conscience, a question of religious values, which they need to answer as free, responsible human beings (see: R.J.FORBES, The Conquest of Nature. Technology and its Consequences, Harmondsworth 1971, p. 138).

The philosopher of science Karl Popper came to the conclusion: “There can be no scientific basis to morality, but science needs a moral foundation.” (see: K.POPPER, Conjectures and Refutations, London 1959).

It is obvious to all thinking people that we can use our new scientific tools to better the condition of innumerable men and women who still live in utter poverty. Many are undernourished, or ill, or condemned to a ceaseless struggle for bare existence. They are imprisoned in ignorance and superstition. But why should we bother to spend time and resources on them?

In his plea for a universal, humanitarian campaign the agnostic Julian Huxley admitted that he had to appeal to religious values.

“The highest and most sacred duty of man is seen as the proper utilization of the untapped resources of human beings. I find myself inevitably driven to use the language of religion. For the fact is that all this does add up to something in the nature of a religion.”

” . . . . I am using the word `religion’ in a broader sense, to denote an overall relation between man and his destiny, and one involving his deepest feelings, including his sense of what is sacred.” (see J.HUXLEY, Evolution in Action, Harmondsworth 1963, pp. 157-158).

The principles of truth, fairness, service to the community and respect for other human beings are religious values. Also scientists cannot fulfil their task responsibly without them.


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion