Skepticism about science and medicine

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Posts Tagged ‘popular image of science’

How science has changed: Who are the scientists?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/07

Scientists are people who do science, Nowadays scientists are people who work at science as a full-time occupation and who earn their living at it.
Science means studying and learning about the natural world, and human beings have been doing that since time immemorial; indeed, in a sense all animals do that, but humans have developed efficient means to transmit gained knowledge to later generations.
At any rate, there was science long before [1] there were scientists, full-time professional students of Nature. Our present-day store of scientific knowledge includes things that have been known for at least thousands of years. For example, from more than 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (Babylon, Sumer) we still use base-60 mathematics for the number of degrees in the arcs of a circle (360) and the number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour. We still cry “Eureka” (found!!) for a new discovery, as supposedly Archimedes did more than 2000 years ago when he recognized that floating an object in water was an easy way to measure its volume (by the increase in height of the water) and that the object’s weight equaled the weight of the water it displaced. The Islamic science of the Middle Ages has left its mark in language with, for instance, algebra or alchemy.
Despite those early pieces of science that are still with us today, most of what the conventional wisdom thinks it knows about science is based on what historians call “modern” science, which is generally agreed to have emerged around the 17th century in what is usually called The Scientific Revolution.
The most widely known bits of science are surely the most significant advances. Those are typically associated with the names of people who either originated them or made them popular [2]; so many school-children hear about Archimedes and perhaps Euclid and Ptolemy; and for modern science, even non-science college students are likely to hear of Galileo and Newton and Darwin and Einstein. Chemistry students will certainly hear about Lavoisier and Priestley and Wöhler and Haber; and so on, just as most of us have learned about general history in terms of the names of important individuals. So far as science is concerned, most people are likely to gain the general impression that it has been done and is being done by a relatively small number of outstanding individuals, geniuses in fact. That impression could only be entrenched by the common thought-bite that “science” overthrew “religion” sometime in the 19th century, leading to the contemporary role of science as society’s ultimate arbiter of true knowledge.
The way in which scientists in modern times have been featured in books and in films also gives the impression that scientists are somehow special, that they are by no means ordinary people. Roslynn Haynes [3] identified several stereotypes of scientists, for example “adventurer” or “the noble scientist as hero or savior of society”, with most stereotypes however being less than favorable — “mad, bad, dangerous scientist, unscrupulous in the exercise of power”. But no matter whether good or bad in terms of morals or ethics, society’s stereotype of “scientist” is “far from an ordinary person”.
That is accurate enough for the founders of modern science, but it became progressively less true as more and more people came to take part in some sort of scientific activity. Real change began in the early decades of the 19th century, when the term “scientist” seems to have been used for the first time [4].
By the end of the 19th century it had become possible to earn a living through being a scientist, through teaching or through doing research that led to commercially useful results (as in the dye-stuff industry) or through doing both in what nowadays are called research universities. By the early 20th century, scientists no longer deserved to be seen as outstanding individual geniuses, but they were still a comparatively elite group of people with quite special talents and interests. Nowadays, however, there is nothing distinctly elite about being a scientist. In terms of numbers (in the USA), scientists at roughly 2.7 million are comparable to engineers at 2.1 million (in ~2001), less elite than lawyers (~ 1 million) or doctors (~800,000); and teachers, at ~3.5 million, are almost as elite as scientists.
Nevertheless, so far as the general public and the conventional wisdom are concerned, there is still an aura of being special and distinctly elite associated with science and being a scientist, no doubt because science is so widely acknowledged as the ultimate authority on what is true about the workings of the natural world; and because “scientist” brings to most minds someone like Darwin or Einstein or Galileo or Newton.
So the popular image of scientists is wildly wrong about today’s world. Scientists today are unexceptional white-collar workers. Certainly a few of them could still be properly described as geniuses, just as a few engineers or doctors could be — or those at the high tail-end of any distribution of human talent; but by and large, there is nothing exceptional about scientists nowadays. That is an enormous change from times past, and the conventional wisdom has not begun to be aware of that change.
One aspect of that change is that the first scientists were amateurs seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works, whereas nowadays scientists are technicians or technical experts who do what they are told to do by employers or enabled to do by patrons. A very consequential corollary is that the early scientists had nothing to gain by being untruthful, whereas nowadays the rewards potentially available to prominent scientists have tempted a significant number to practice varying degrees of dishonesty.
Another way of viewing the change that science and scientists have undergone is that science used to be a cottage industry largely self-supported by independent entrepreneurial workers, whereas nowadays science is a corporate behemoth whose workers are apparatchiks, cogs in bureaucratic machinery; and in that environment, individual scientists are subject to conflicts of interest and a variety of pressures owing to their membership in a variety of groups.

Science today is not a straightforward seeking of truth about how the world works; and claims emerging from the scientific community are not necessarily made honestly; and even when made honestly, they are not necessarily true. More about those things in future posts.

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[1]    For intriguing tidbits about pre-scientific developments, see “Timeline Outline View”
[2]    In reality, most discoveries hinge on quite a lot of work and learning that prefigured them and made them possible, as discussed for instance by Tony Rothman in Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (Wiley, 2003). That what matters most is not the act of discovery but the making widely known is the insight embodied in Stigler’s Law, that discoveries are typically named after the last person who discovered them, not the first (S. M. Stigler, “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, Transactions of the N.Y. Academy of Science, II: 39 [1980] 147–58)
[3]    Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; also “Literature Has shaped the public perception of science”, The Scientist, 12 June 1989, pp. 9, 11
[4]    William Whewell is usually credited with coining the term “scientist” in the early 1830s

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