Monday, April 16, 2007

De-Mystifying Scientists

When I was much younger, I had the misfortune to believe that politicians were, for the most part, statesmen who more often than not made wise decisions.

That's not to say their decisions always looked wise to me. Far from it. Their decisions most often seemed foolish to me even when I was younger. So how could I believe they were, in reality, wise?

Pretty simple, really. I would read the morning newspaper, nearly choke as I read what Congress and the President had done, but then -- but then -- I would think to myself, "Well, they know more than I do. Obviously their decisions would make sense to me if I knew the real situation, like they do." That's what I would think, and it worked to keep me happy with the politicians for a long time.

Then came C-Span.

C-Span was The Great De-Mystifyer. I recall a period of a few short years when I would watch it each weekend for hours at a time, in utter fascination at what politicians were like when their statements weren't being heavily edited by the news outlets. Gradually, I realized most politicians, far from being statesmen, were simply buffoons of one sort or another. Yet, only by seeing for myself the truth did I come to that realization. If it had not been for C-Span, I would most likely still think of politicians as genuine leaders, wiser than most people, somehow above the crowd.

Last night, I was reminded of all that when reading a very popular science blog. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure the blog gets over 3,000 visits each day. It has a Google page rank of seven, which is almost impossible for a blog to achieve without it's having enough traffic to cause a major immigration problem if blog visits were the same as border crossings. People leave so many comments on the posts that the blog even rivals some popular forums for participation. And a read through 200 comments on one thread alone impressed me that perhaps half the people commenting were folks working in, or studying, some field of science.

Reading the comments was just as de-mystifying as watching C-Span had been so many years ago Many of the science workers were rude, insulting and hyper-sensitive towards each other -- so rude, insulting and hyper-sensitive that they quickly put me in mind of the worse trailer park society. I wondered where they had grown up; whether their families were as emotionally undisciplined -- even to the point of being dysfunctional -- as they seemed to be; whether there was anything about science itself that brought out such rudeness in such bright people; and a host of other questions.

Of course, Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, mentions that scientists often try to persuade each other through irrational means. But until recently -- and especially until last night -- it hadn't sunk in just how irrational those means could get.

All of this caused me some late night reflections. First, I thought of how naive my expectations had been. When Kuhn mentioned "irrational means" I had envisioned scientists appealing to each other's emotions, but nothing like the cat fight in a whore house I witnessed last night. Appealing to someone's emotions might be appealing to their irrational side, but it's still legitimate. However, viciously attacking someone personally is the sort of irrationality that's more often associated with bimbo talk show hosts than with scientists. Yet, the "debate" I saw last night would fit perfectly Sean Hannity's radio program.

Second, I reflected that we often confuse scientists with science. Science is hyper-rational, dispassionate, and as close to objective as anything humans know. It is easy, therefore, to think of scientists themselves as hyper-rational, dispassionate, and objective. But if the folks on that blog are any fair indication, many scientists are far from being any of that. Which leads me to my third reflection: It must be the methods of science, and not the personality of scientists that accounts for much of the dispassionate rationality of science.

Now, to be fair, I should tell you that in my offline life I only know a tiny handful of scientists, and that each and every one of my scientific friends is an exceptional human being. Indeed, at least one of them, Jeff Glickman, is a sort of hero of mine. He's a computer scientist who has been described by his peers as a "genius' genius", and he ranks among the kindest, most compassionate, most loyal people I've known in my life. I've known Jeff since we were undergraduates together at university and I have never known him to be rude or insulting towards me or anyone else. So, I know full well that the group I saw last night by no means represents all scientists.

Yet, last night was still de-mystifying for me. I had assumed that my tiny sample of scientific friends was more or less representative of the whole. Now, I'm not sure what the real case is.


The Geezers said...

I honestly don't know that we can call science "hyperrational and as close to truly objective as we can possibly be." Reading a bit of history of science and you find it just as irrational as the Philipino legislature on a bad day.

That being said, I do think there are genuine objective geniuses to be found in science. But frankly their presence seems to be the exception that proves the rule—the rule being that science is anything but objective.

Mind you, I don't think science is any more guilty in this regard than politics or any other human endeavor. But you're on perilous ice to pretend that science is somehow more noble. I see no evidence of it at all.

Convince me, please. I'd actually be thrilled to think that science can be truly objective.

B said...

Like Doctors, politicians, preachers, and prophets . . . scientists are still just people like you and I.

george.w said...

I like to think there's a self-selection dynamic going on in exceptionally nasty forums. It comforts me to think that they aren't really representative of the whole.

Paul Sunstone said...

Hi Mystic! Thanks for the challenge!

I will agree that scientists at times can be just as irrational as the Philipino legislature on a bad day (to steal your beautiful comparison), but I would argue that science itself is distinct from scientists in some vital way.

I believe the various scientific methods effectively weed out irrationality over time, leaving a hyper-rational, even hyper-objective, product. I'm going to develop that thought more thoroughly in a new post, however, because I'm not sure my choice of terms (rational, objective, etc)is rigorous enough.

Brendan, you're quite right to state that scientists are people just like us. I think, though, it's all too easy to assume that they are significantly more rational than the average person. That is, we see how rational their product is, then wrongly guess they themselves must be just as rational.

George, I now think I posted my thoughts about that site a little too soon after visiting it. My thoughts were only half-digested, it seems. And the point you make about sites being self-selecting should have been something I took into consideration in my post. Thank you for making that point!

steppen wolf said...

mystic wing:
"Convince me, please. I'd actually be thrilled to think that science can be truly objective"

Ok, now I'd like to know your definition of "truly objective". I think you are confusing scientists with the science.
In science, we recognize the fact that we are able to create bias. There comes peer review.
The strength of science is in recognizing that as humans we are not perfect, and that we know way less than we think. Try getting a paper accepted in Nature, or at the first submission in most really sound like somebody who has hardly any experience with science. Forgive me.

That said, I completely agree on the fact that certain blog select for rude people and intollerance. Believe me, that is not all you'll find in the science blogosphere.