The myth of the noble scientist

David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

True, there is an ethos of honesty in science which we can be proud of and attempt to adhere to. But we know that scientists are just as human as anyone else. They certainly are as susceptible as others to human failings. And this includes not only pride and personal ambition but also subjectivity, blinkered views, bias and even superstition.

Maybe in the past there was this public picture of the noble scientist but we now live in a more more sensible age. Biographies of scientists are no longer hagiographies. Anyone who has read a recent biography will be aware of how unpleasant Newton was personally. Of Albert Einstein’s treatment of his first wife and their fist child. Of Madame Curies’ affair. No, these heroes of science were real people, not the idealised noble scientist.

Some biographies will even discuss the scientific mistakes of these great scientists. Although, I personally think more should be made of these as they would help us understand the real processes that go on in scientific discovery.

Media beat ups, like the “climategate” concentration on stolen scientist emails, have also revealed how human, and even petty, scientists can be. And the recent news of scientific misconduct by Marc D. Hauser has exposed another, unpleasant, side of human failings (see Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement and Marc Hauser replies – acknowledges mistakes).

Human scientists but noble science

But scientists do evoke the image of trust – if you believe advertisements for cleaning products and cosmetics. How often have we seen white lab coats used in such ads. But I think this reputation comes more from the nature of science itself, rather than the scientist. After all, we know from experience that science is capable of delivering. We all depend on this reliability of science in our everyday lives.

This reliability comes from the scientific method – not from the character of individual scientists. Taken in isolation humans rely on pattern recognition. They also rely on brain processes which create our own version of reality. Rather than “seeing is believing” we are often confronted more with “believing is seeing.” It is only human to unconsciously select the information which fits with our preconceived views. To seek confirmation for our own biases.

This may have been a result of our evolution and has probably served us well in our attempts to survive and reproduce. But this approach is not a good basis for truly investigating and understanding reality. They are not a good basis for doing science. And we can certainly see the influence of subjective attitudes, protection of pet ideas, cultural and religious influences, etc., when we look at the history of science.

Modern science has developed methodologies to minimise subjective influences. One is the importance we now place on interaction with reality. On collection of evidence and the testing of any resulting hypotheses and theories against reality. Scientific theories are validated both by testing against reality and by their use in subsequent investigations and technological appliances.

The social nature of science also helps. Ideas and theories must be open to sceptical consideration of peers in the process of collaborative research, funding applications, conference presentations and scientific publications.

Scientific knowledge is progressive – it generally improves with time. This means that mistakes, and scientific frauds, do not remain undiscovered.  Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Ambitious scientists are eager to expose such mistakes. Science really is self-correcting. Irrespective of the human failings of individual scientists.

The noble scientist as a straw man

Scientists themselves have no illusions. After all they experience the human side of their colleagues all the time. I don’t know about the perception of the person in the street but suspect that the image of noble scientist would not be common in these cynical times. Personally, the only time I come across this myth is when it is used as a straw man by those who are critcising science or denying certain scientific findings.

You know. When confronted with scientific features they wish to reject the climate change or evolution denier will sometimes justify their rejection by arguing that scientists are not objective. That scientific fraud is common. The “scientific establishment” controls peer review. Or that science can’t escape from its cultural prejudices. Some theological critics of science fall back on the bias of the so-called “materialistic” or “naturalistic” “paradigm” in science.

They will accuse those they are debating with of having an idealised, fictional concept of the objective, honest scientist. The noble scientist.

A debating ploy, but one that really avoids the issue. And that is probably why it is used. They should be dealing with, and possibly critiquing if they can, the actual scientific evidence and its interpretation. Not the all too human individual scientist.

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7 responses to “The myth of the noble scientist

  1. Schiller Thurkettle

    I’m not sure that diluting the popular image of scientists and the scientific method is the best response to Climategate — a series of events which occurred precisely because of that dilution. A better response would be to reaffirm our standards, and set our expectations accordingly.

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  2. I don’t agree with you Schiller. The climategate beat up occurred becuase of the opposition to climate science. This motivated the theft and release of the emails. The campaign then relied on distortion of some words, plus repetition of some petty comments to create an image of scientists manipulating and falsifying data. It didn’t occur because the popular image of scientists has been “diluted”, become more realistic.

    I agree with you that we have to continually reaffirm our standards – hence my comment: “True, there is an ethos of honesty in science which we can be proud of and attempt to adhere to.” But really that is not enough. Science can’t just rely on the honesty and attempted objectivity of individuals. We have to continually defend and assert scientific methodology which helps us reduce the effects of subjectivity and other human failings.

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  3. Pingback: The Modern Myth « Earthpages.org – August 2010

  4. Attempted honesty is laudable and measures of perceived success must vary. That is where we live in a population that has expanded outside of its village references.
    Absolutes may not be relevant to many as the understanding of such is esoteric.
    Much of the opening discussion covers ground better explained in personality traits .
    The battle for recognition of important science based information to influence a range of human activities is the How To issue surely.
    Perhaps the sideshow of giving ignorant condemnation of such a lot of time an attention is debilitating.
    Loud proclamation unfortunately seems to get the biggest following. Detailed and accurate argument is very necessary but lost to the masses.
    Winning by enlisting or educating political voice seems to be effective also.

    That assumes such available political figures are not in the pay of ignorant factions. Local councils have a some educable candidates and elections are looming.

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  5. Pingback: Fallout from Hauser affair spreads | Open Parachute

  6. It does make sense to present an alternative theory with alternative evidence, or at least to directly critique the more popular view, if one wishes to legitimately discredit it. That is the best kind of argument to get more to the point of the actual merit of ideas, but that isn’t always in the cards. This article implies that the “noble scientist myth” isn’t actually prevalent in some major facets of western society, which is false. In fact, it is very problematic for those espousing less popular scientific theories. if one jumps straight to the scientific case for why a more popular theory is wrong, particularly one which is the center of some political contention, then all too often one finds one’s claims dismissed at face value, and compared to flat-earthers, creationists, and old cigarette advertisements, which is its own straw-man.

    Many people are dismissive of unpopular science because, in my experience, they believe that a majority consensus in the scientific community, while not infallible, must necessarily be the best currently available theory. Cultural biases, such as the morality of environmentalism, influence groups, not just individuals, which means that many scientists collaborating and competing with each other are still vulnerable to such biases; the collectivization of responsibility does not really solve anything. And it should be clear to any scientist that ideas which are in the minority, even a minority of one, cannot rightly be dismissed out of hand on that basis alone. Hence this concept of “the myth of the noble scientist” is far more useful than any straw-man fallacy.

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  7. ….if one jumps straight to the scientific case for why a more popular theory is wrong…

    “Popular” theory? Hmm.

    …particularly one which is the center of some political contention, then all too often one finds one’s claims dismissed at face value, and compared to flat-earthers, creationists, and old cigarette advertisements.

    For instance?

    …which is its own straw-man.

    Only if whatever you are talking about are not comparable to the creationist or Big Tobacco playbook. If they are comparable, then it’s not a strawman.
    What specifically are you referring to?

    Many people are dismissive of unpopular science because, in my experience, they believe that a majority consensus in the scientific community, while not infallible, must necessarily be the best currently available theory.

    “Many people”.
    You mean the general public, right? As opposed to the various scientific communities?

    …they believe that a majority consensus in the scientific community…

    A scientific consensus does not happen by magic. There’s the work involved.
    The Flat Earthers and the creationist and the Big Tobacco propogandists get tossed out on their ass for the same basic reasons. Comparing those three types (for example) and dealing with them the same way is very appropriate.
    There’s more out there like them. A lot more.

    And it should be clear to any scientist that ideas which are in the minority, even a minority of one, cannot rightly be dismissed out of hand on that basis alone.

    Any scientific community would accept that. It’s hardly a revelation.
    You don’t win a Nobel Prize by coming up with stuff that everybody knows.
    Creationism gets dismissed.
    Flat Eartherism gets dismissed.
    Denial from the Tobacco Lobby gets dismissed.
    It’s got nothing to do with them being in some minority or other.

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