I recently took a break from my hoovering “urban fantasy” novels to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. The book is a history of the science of the Earth and the universe, with the “history” aspect being discussion and presentation of the great minds that have been figuring out how everything works.

What made quite an impression on me is the very common and very extreme stubbornness many of these great minds exhibited when what was commonly accepted as correct was disproved and replaced with more accurate theories and ideas. It’s a powerful reminder that even genius scientists are people, with egos, human failings, and common behavior patterns. It’s a stark rebuttal to anyone who proclaims “scientists say” as unchallengeable gospel. And, it’s a reminder that corrections to popular-but-wrong theories often take a long time to break through.

This last bit is reflected in Planck’s Principle:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

We also witness parallels in social evolution: changes in attitudes are often generational, rather than individual. Bigotry of various sorts softens or goes away as older generations die off and newer ones reach primacy. It can also be true in politics, but unfortunately politics is a place where seductive-but-bad ideas perpetually infect young minds.

Today, however, we discuss scientists and science. Or, more specifically, SCIENCE!, the increasingly common supplanting of proper understanding with a dogmatic or quasi-religious reverence that’s rooted in ignorance of the realities of scientific method. Science, always politicized to some degree throughout human history (Galileo, Lysenko, Scopes, Copernicus, et al), has become a bit of a political football today, with both sides of the aisle attempting to claim “SCIENCE!” as their own while asserting that their opponents are anti-science. This is all nonsense – proper respect for scientific knowledge and method is not remotely the same as treating science as dogma and scientists as oracles, prophets, and irrefutable conveyors of divine truths.

Scientists are no different in their humanity, motivations, failings, egos, conceits, fears, insecurities and so forth than you or I. They’re as driven by conflicting influences and externalities as the rest of us. They’re susceptible to confirmation bias, to stubbornness born out of reputational concerns, to intransigence on new or conflicting ideas, to fear of humiliation or being proven wrong, and the like. Certainly, science itself calls for the exclusion of all these human “failings,” but a Spock-like commitment to the scientific method to the exclusion of all else is beyond most of us. Moreso, it doesn’t pay the bills.

I don’t mean to suggest that the scientific world is corrupt, but politics is an inevitable aspect of any endeavor involving humans, and politics affects everything. And, it always has. This isn’t anything new, this isn’t some present-day collapse of objectivity in favor of base partisanship. It is the nature of things, as amply illustrated in Bryson’s book.

It is understandable that someone who’s built a career on a particular scientific theory will be quite loath to embrace its refutation. We must extend that understanding to the broader idea of “science” itself, and remember that nothing we know or theorize about the physical world is sacrosanct. Certainly, we have superb and ever-growing understanding of many aspects of our world, and the stronger a theory, the greater the countervailing proof must be to knock it down. But, just as the Copernican model of the solar system and universe replaced the Ptolemaic model despite hordes of scientists who stood for the latter, it is quite possible that that which we know “for a fact” can be supplanted with better knowledge. That is the essence of science.

It’s never bad to raise legitimate questions about a scientific theory. Unfortunately, many choose to attack those who do and conflate them with the crackpots who advance absurd “alternate theories” or refute well-established knowledge with nothing more than handwaving “woo” or conspiracy nuttiness. This puts the rational people, the Spocks, those who respect real science, in a no-mans-land between the quasi-religious worshipers of “SCIENCE!” and believers in the cold, infallible rationality of scientists on one side and the wild-eyed dingbats who think the Earth is flat, that diluting a medicinal substance to 1 part per novemdecillion gives it a special potency, that the positions of arbitrarily determined star patterns have fundamental and daily influences on our lives, or that believe in all sorts of other pseudoscientific nonsense.

It behooves us to remember, in all matters scientific, while it’s proper to presume the people doing the work are by and large honest, upright folks genuinely pursuing scientific knowledge, that they are as human as the rest of us. We should respect their work and their conclusions, but we shouldn’t treat them as seers, prophets, or channelers of mystical knowledge.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?