The Problem With Science Is Scientists

Paraphrasing Edward Longshanks from the movie Braveheart “The problem with science, is all the scientists.”

I am amused by a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan.  I am amused by Heffernan’s piece not because I disagree with her, but because she seems surprised.  Note to Heffernan—It has always been thus.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs.  “Science Blogs”, as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist.  While Myers is the most read of the cynics at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

“Science Blogs” has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs’ sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site.  It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Heffernan, in following up on the story, discovered anew the vitriol that passes for scientific discourse at Science Blogs.

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Heffernan wonders what ever happened to pure scientific discourse that is interested in observing, hypothesizing, and proving? Perhaps one could ask these same questions of Richard Dawkins and his atheist toadies.

What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

Heffernan, like many, seem to believe that once science was pure but somehow has been corrupted.  Not so.  It has always been this way.  One need look no further than the patron saint of snarky scientists, Galileo himself.

What we usually hear about ol’ Galileo is that he was persecuted by the Church for his ideas and that is true to a point.  I bet many people probably believe he was beheaded or something rather than being forced into early retirement at an Italian Villa.  Anyway, we all know the Galileo story, right?

Well did you know that that Pope Urban VIII had been a friend and admirer of Galileo.  When Galileo wanted to write a book about the controversy of the day, heliocentrism, the Pope gave him the go ahead.  All he asked is that Galileo present fairly both sides of the argument.  So what did the patron saint of scientists do?  He put the words of the Pope into a character in his book name Simplicio, a fool.  Not content to fairly promote his ideas, Galileo mocked the Pope who gave him permission for the book.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But… But…. Galileo was right!  So he was advancing science by mocking those who disagreed.  He is vindicated!

Well I am not sure if being right is vindication for poor behavior, but the truth is that scientists have conducted this vitriolic inquisition on their own kind more than anyone else.  Such scathing scientific discourse may have destroyed more lives than the Inquisition.  The real sin here is disagreeing with the prevailing wisdom of the scientific clique of the day.

Just one example of many is the case Alfred Wegener.  Wegener was an astronomer by trade but he proposed a simple theory in the field of geology.  Alfred Wegener proposed the theory then called ‘continental drift’ and now know as plate tectonics.  Plate tectonics is well accepted now but in the early 20th century when Wegener proposed it, it flew in the face of accepted scientific wisdom.

For his insight, Wegener was mocked and criticized and ultimately ostracized by the mainstream scientific establishment.  Ultimately he died virtually unknown on an expedition trying to prove his theory.

We can see the same type of behavior by global warming scientists today.  You are either in the club or out.  And if you are out, watch out.

So while I understand Heffernan’s frustration at the level of discourse in science today, she should just resign herself to this reality.  It has always been this way.

Science is great, scientists however….