What's With The Anti-Science On 13.7? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture A scientist's response to anti-science vitriol

What's With The Anti-Science On 13.7?

Several months ago I wrote a 13.7 blog wherein I lifted up the specter of anti-science sentiment.

Blaming scientists serves another purpose as well. There's an impressive anti-intellectual-elite streak in American culture. "Those scientists are so arrogant, so know-it-all, so sure they're right about everything. And now look at the mess they've made of things." The tone is triumphant. The scientist concept is all-too-often shrouded in ominous Jekyll-Hyde fear. If assigned to portray a scientist in a game of charades, what might first come to your mind is a greedy eureka leer, freaked-out hair, manic arm movements. You'd presumably hesitate to portray an African-American with analogous caricatures. Scientists are fair game.

That said, I experienced considerable surprise, and yes chagrin, as I read some of the comments made in response to Adam's wonderful post below. His description of the way things operate in astrophysics maps one-on-one with my 40-plus years as a biologist, and it was my expectation that 13.7 readers were not among those who figured that scientists are fair game. Guess I was wrong about that.

Here are a few responses to some of the posts as of midnight last night -- where I see there've been more since, happily from both sides of the aisle.

Comment #1 (Peter Morgan):

In Science, "Tell the truth", within the formal and informal standards set by the Scientific community, yes; "Tell the whole truth", not so much. At the very least, labs are jealous and careful not to give away their precedence and their patent rights to their competitors. Celebrating getting to a result before another lab that one day you will compete with for funding is part of the game. Surely Wall Street tries quite hard to ensure that what they say is "true", within the formal, legal standard of "true" that holds for financial transactions, but for the officers of a company to tell their clients the whole truth would be to fail in at least some of their fiduciary duties.


I fail completely to understand the fiduciary duties that would fail if clients were told the whole truth by company officers, and would appreciate clarification.

But what does ambition have to do with truth-telling? Of course scientists are ambitious and celebrate success. So are football players and artists and software developers. We all work really hard to figure stuff out. We can only do what we love to do if we are funded, and if funds were plentiful we wouldn't need to compete for them -- rest assured that this feature of our job is not regarded with pleasure. It really startles me when scientists are pilloried for ambition while concert pianists and outfielders are celebrated for it.

Comment #1 cont. and comment #2 (Ted Pawliki):

It is no more consolation to know that some plagiarism or other gross ethical failing will be discovered and prosecuted than to prosecute a Bernie Madoff after the event.

Scientific misconduct is a serious and growing issue. As in all human endeavors, the probability of corrupt and unethical behavior increases as a function of the amount of money at stake.


I would appreciate factual URLs documenting the serious and growing occurrences of scientific misconduct and gross ethical failing in the scientific enterprise. If the posters have in mind the East Anglia "incident," a number of analyses, summarized here, indicate that misconduct and ethical failing were not involved. I agree fully with Adam that such events are extremely uncommon, and believe me, when they occur, we scientists all hear about them in publications like Science and Nature, not to mention when they're picked up by mainstream media.

Importantly, they are widely reported even when the scientist involved is a relatively minor figure at a relatively minor institution guilty of a relatively minor infraction. It's not just the Bernie Madoffs. If all ethical infractions in the corporate world were given as much press as all scientific infractions, our news media would be clogged.

Comment #3 (Pankaj Seth)

The practice of science is indeed governed by the search for truth. This is especially true of endeavors in pure research. In applied research, things get more complex as money interests from the business world get involved. When it comes to big business' generation and use of scientific data, then we might as well be talking about Wall St. There are many examples of scientists shilling for this or that industry... hiding or obfuscating data which shows harmful or useless medicines and procedures for example.... So please, lets not make scientists out to be some sort of modern saints driven by truth. Plenty of harm has been caused by scientists that have co-operated with big business to deceive the public.


The appropriate distinction is not between pure and applied research, since both are inherently governed by the same "truth code," but rather between those who are scientists and those who have elected to "shill for this or that industry... hiding or obfuscating data." The moment that decision is made, that person is no longer a scientist. She or he may hold a Ph.D. or whatever, and may pose in a white lab coat for a corporate ad, but to practice science and to shill or obfuscate are contradictions in terms.