It’s true. Contrary to all expectations, scientists are in fact human. Once believed to be a separate species, Homo scientia, we now know that scientists are not just a closely related hominid, they’re just as human as the next guy.
In order to bolster Science against several centuries worth of religious onslaught, Western cultures have come to believe (akin to a defense mechanism) that the purpose of science is to reveal “truth” or “fact” rather than accept that, like any of our species’ endeavors, Science is riddled with human bias.
I for one don’t decry this bias as an absolute deficit but believe it can also provide creative strength that ultimately differentiates a “scientist” from a “computer”. After all, assumptions are only bad if they’re incorrect, right? And all human thought is predicated on a near-infinite collection of biases. The very act of interpreting incoming sensory information is a biased process because it’s not completely inherent, it’s learned and everybody learns a bit differently.
However, highlighting some of the negative aspects of that human bias, the National Bureau of Economic Research has just published a working paper entitled, “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” The authors looked at trends in publishing within various specializations following the deaths of prominent leading scientists.
They found that these prominent scientists tended to bring their fields along for the ride, so to speak– strongly influencing theories within the discipline. However, after the deaths of these same scientists, trends within the field more often tended to shift away from these foci and towards alternative work and theories. Grants also became more plentiful for other up-and-comings.
In short, single powerful scientists can and often do shape entire fields of science– at least for the time they’re standing upright and breathing.
It’s not until they pass on that their ideas, at least in part, pass on with them and a new generation of scientists take over and move the field into new directions. And the whole process starts over again.
It says a lot about how we humans learn about the world around us. It teaches us that Science does indeed differ from other disciplines of learning according to its focus (the natural world) and its preferred methodologies and traditions, but its ideas are still vulnerable to the same assumptions that typify human thought processes. And what’s more, the Bureau’s new study suggests that whole fields of Science are at the mercy of human social systems. In short, the best theories don’t always win out and it’s just a whole big high school popularity contest all over again.
I guess that aspect of life never changes.