Why is scientific discourse so different from public discourse? Because scientific culture values and enforces accountability for what people say more than popular culture. People who become scientists are strongly encouraged to adopt accountability as their personal norm and it doesn’t end there. They are also locked into a system of cultural practices that makes it difficult to violate the norms. Every paper published in a peer reviewed journal is a cut gem of accountability, thanks to the peer review process that scientists take for granted.
Science requires altruism in addition to social control. The editorial and peer review process is done mostly on a volunteer basis. It’s true that slackers have slightly tarnished reputations, but most of the hardworking editors and reviewers that I know give much more than they receive and are motivated primarily by their commitment to their scientific community.
In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.
Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.
The third point is especially important because it means that scientists must be vigilant about keeping their own house in order before preaching to others. Anyone familiar with science knows that it is a messy process, like making laws and sausages. If only it was as simple as hypothesis formation and testing leading straight to the truth! Often science is like a bloodhound having difficulty finding the scent or running off baying loudly in the wrong direction.
A special problem occurs when all scientists are biased in the same direction. Then there is no diversity of opinion that might cause them to disagree. Everyone knows that Darwin and his contemporaries were biased by the assumptions of Victorian culture, which they didn’t know how to question but we can easily recognize with the passage of time. Everyone is prepared to admit that we are also biased by the assumptions of our own culture, but we seldom make a serious effort to examine and correct for them as part of the scientific process. We should.
The fallibility of science makes arrogance one of its sins and humility one of its virtues, just as for other religious faiths. Beware of scientific emperors. They might have no clothes and that’s not a pretty sight.
A perfect example of scientific absolutism! Cite this!