“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.“ – Albert Einstein
I think Einstein got that right. Knowledge is extremely important for our species and consequently I think those who set out to discredit or slander our knowledge are really acting against the interests of humanity.
But, a cynical or disparaging attitude towards knowledge is, unfortunately, quite common. And it’s not just fundamentalist religious believers who are guilty. This approach keeps coming up in the climate change debate. It’s also common with those who promote “alternative” health therapies such as crystals, homeopathy, etc.
These people often talk about of “big science,” the “science establishment,” “corruption in science,” “business links to science,” and so on.
Science is accused of being based on faith, a dogma, or even a religion.
Of course, these slanders are used in an opportunistic way. These same commentators are quite happy to use opinions of scientists to support their own arguments – even when those scientists are obviously connected with big business or are really presenting a religious viewpoint.
Scientists are human
Of course scientists are no better than the rest of us. They are capable of bias, prejudice and working for commercial, religious or political interests. In themselves, their opinions don’t have any special value. And scientists are also susceptible to the perfectly human frailty of using information selectively to support a pre-conceived theory or belief.
However, the scientific enterprise is wider than the activity or opinions of individual scientists. Three features of scientific knowledge and activity are important:
- Knowledge is based on, and checked against, reality;
- Science is very much a social activity;
- It is a sceptical process and encourages scepticism.
This means that whatever the prejudices or desires of the individual practitioner, evidence is required to support ideas or theories and these are tested experientially. The social scientific environment requires this. Ideas, theories and supporting evidence are scrutinised by colleagues and other competing scientists. They must be submitted to peer review. Once incorporated into an accepted body of knowledge scientific theory is not immune to further investigation, testing, modification or rejection. Science is a dynamic process – nothing is set in stone. Reality, not authority or opinion, is the final arbiter.
As a body of knowledge, science has therefore much more validity and authority than the opinions or ideas of individuals.
Protection from political, commercial and religious pressures
Of course science does come under political, commercial and religious pressure. The funding of scientific research by business interests is a current issue in New Zealand. It can be positive – after all it’s about time business helped finance research as they do benefit from new knowledge. (And really it is in the long-term interests of business to accept this knowledge even when it appears to conflict with their short-term interests). On the other hand, business will sometimes attempt to predetermine research results, or hide findings they are unhappy with.
It’s easy to find scientist who have prostituted themselves to commercial or religious interests. Consider scientists promoting products in advertisements or “intelligent design” in opinion articles.
But the best protection against this is the operation of the scientific method. Its reliance on objective evidence and testing against reality. The sceptical process which operates in the scientific community. And the fact that accepted knowledge is always open for review, further testing and modification.
Our knowledge must always be open to criticism and re-evaluation. But such scepticism must be based on consideration of evidence – not slander of existing knowledge and those involved in scientific investigation. When I find commentators supporting their arguments with slanderous attacks on science and knowledge I see it as a weakness.
Slander is never convincing.
*Acknowledgment for cartoon to Matthew Shultz & the Union of Concerned Scientists: Science Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest.
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