Science and scientists, warts and all

An opinion by John Bruce Carver, PhD. 

Reproduced, with permission, from his blog: 

Posted on August 13, 2013 by John Bruce Carver

Science is a human enterprise, so therefore makes mistakes, confounds beliefs with fact-finding, and gets stuck on theories beyond their sell-by dates. But the way I see it, science reflects the corrupt, mendacious, and stubborn sides of humanness less than all other ways of understanding the natural world. It isn’t perfect because people aren’t perfect, but it’s the best tool we have. You want examples? Corrupt: The Stalin-ingratiating claims of Soviet biologist Lysenko that acquired characteristics are inherited. Mendacious: The East Sussex Piltdown Man scandal in which contrived “evidence” wasn’t refuted for four decades. Stubborn: Mocking resistance for five decades to Wegener’s 1912 theory of plate tectonics.

One could point out that these and similar travesties were not science gone awry so much as the rules of science ignored or abandoned. I think that is true, but I’m aware that I’ve criticized those who give religion a pass about religiously motivated horrors because of their being “only in the name of religion.” Whether I’m off the hook on that score or not, the “scientific method” is quite strict and most (all?) of scientists’ misconduct consists of violating those rules. Still, science is self-correcting even when scientists go awry. Scientific commitment, for example, outlasted the Soviet triumph of ideology over politically inspired contentions; science itself discovered and corrected the Piltdown hoax; plate tectonics finally became settled lithosphere science.

Still, science is a human endeavor and scientists at a given time cannot be expected all to agree with each other. The disagreement is usually slight, but never absent. That means that the rest of us have little choice but to regard what most scientists say as, in effect, “what science says.” After all, on what informed basis are we going to argue with either the mainstream or the outliers? (We do anyway, of course, but addressing that will wait for a later posting.)

Let me put aside nuclear bombs, the Eugenics disgrace, ICBMs, Zyklon-B and Galileo’s method to calculate cannon ball trajectories. Those are not what science gave us; they are what political choice and ideology gave us, albeit using knowledge science provided. Science in itself has never been the enemy even when revealing our unflattering biological origins. It simply describes reality as best it can, and we can take it or leave it. But even if we decide to ignore it, hate it, or suppress it, science goes on about its business muttering confidently to itself, as Galileo reputedly did about the earth after publicly recanting heliocentrism, “yet it still moves.”

New truth, to say the least, is not always enthusiastically received. That is particularly so when it both calls into question existing beliefs and arrives without scientific unanimity. In an upcoming post I want to share further thoughts about social behavior when science and ideology collide.


[© John B. Carver. Permission to reprint or quote if attributed to source.]

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