Breaking News: Scientists Are Human After All

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

4 responses to “Breaking News: Scientists Are Human After All

  1. Nice article. I think the problem is deeper than just who is most popular. True scientific method – observation – hypothesis – experimental verification – has been replaced with mathematical models and ad hoc theory – and that’s it. If observation doesn’t fit the model and the theory, deny the observation.

    Hence we have a cosmology that tells us we only see 4% of the universe and the other 96% is stuff we can’t see or understand (dark matter & dark energy). Climate scientist say the earth is warming – drastically (oh my!) because of carbon, when reality is the earth has begun a cooling trend “forced” by the sun that is far more dangerous to society. We have archaeologists and anthropologists saying we developed civilization 6 k years ago, when there are clearly artifacts of of a society over 12 k years old (Gobleki Tepi and others).

    Science is subject to dogma as much as religion is because we have institutionalized it. Science must rely on funds and the funds aren’t there for studying science outside of the mainstream gradualism that pervades the community. It is not just a problem of the hubris of scientists who have a “my idea is better than yours” attitude. The mainstream community closes ranks and vilifies those who have a different idea. Anyone who claims CO2 isn’t causing a significant warming is called a “denier” and now politicians are out to have them prosecuted – even though they have solid, verifiable science backing them up. I know religious fanatics that are more open minded than scientists. The inquisition lives on in today’s science community – it’s the most medieval community outside of extremist Islam.

    Long comment – sorry – but you hit a nerve.

    • No need to apologize. It also hits a nerve with me, as a young scientist who is rapidly learning how socially complex this whole “science thing” is. All of which is only worsened by comparatively limited resources (huge number of PhDs, not that many jobs, and even less money). It’s something that not only makes me angry, wanting to futily shake my fist at the cosmic fates, but also genuinely saddens me. To seek knowledge about the natural world is one of the most awesome endeavors a person can engage in. If only for that moment of discovery, that moment that makes one feel if just a little bit immortal. And that almost-spiritual sensation is ruined by the realities of science as a business, and a cut-throat one at that.

      As for climate change issues, I myself don’t have a particular stance except that I do believe it is wise to reduce pollution and seek better forms of renewable energies. But I believe any politician mucking around in science and using it for their own agendas is a terrible thing because it’s bound to be perverted somehow. Although I will not be against any changes implemented to improve the state of our planet. While in the Victorian era, coal allowed them to leap ahead in the industrial revolution, we now have much better alternatives to energy, if only they can be implemented without causing economies to crash. But then again, I’m no economist so what do I know?

      • Thanks Emily,

        I used to build solar power plants – our money is being wasted, but I do believe in the technology and moving away from fossil fuel (I built those plants, too). I don’t want pollution either, I just don’t like the rationale and rape of the ratepayer being used to change energy policy.

        With scientists like you, I have great optimism. Thank you for keeping a 360 degree skepticism. I fear too many in science are only skeptical of others and don’t look in the mirror.

        You are also a very good writer.

      • Thanks very much. 🙂 It’s always a challenge to remain skeptical (while also not becoming TOO skeptical as well that one essentially doubts everything and is immobilized). I was also thinking that, while we’re focusing on the pollution of CO2, we’re subsequently ignoring other pollutants as well.

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