Why Science Works, even when Scientists are A-holes.

December 21, 2010

This piece by Peter Watts has been making it’s way around the blogosphere, and rattling in my subconscious, for a year or so. The original is here. I post what I think is the more salient portion below.

“Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” remarked one widely-quoted NASA climatologist. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.”

No. I don’t think he’s got it right. I don’t think most of these people do.

Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?

There’s this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it’s a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.

But that’s a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do— the best science can do— is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.

That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year’s Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. Every time you think you’ve made a breakthrough, that asshole supervisor who told you you needed more data will be standing ready to shoot it down. You want to know how the Human Genome Project finished so far ahead of schedule? Because it was the Human Genome projects, two competing teams locked in bitter rivalry, one led by J. Craig Venter, one by Francis Collins — and from what I hear, those guys did not like each other at all.

This is how it works: you put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the shit out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.

Yes, there are mafias. There are those spared the kicking because they have connections. There are established cliques who decide what appears in Science, who gets to give a spoken presentation and who gets kicked down to the poster sessions with the kiddies. I know a couple of people who will probably never get credit for the work they’ve done, for the insights they’ve produced. But the insights themselves prevail. Even if the establishment shoots the messenger, so long as the message is valid it will work its way into the heart of the enemy’s camp. First it will be ridiculed. Then it will be accepted as true, but irrelevant. Finally, it will be embraced as canon, and what’s more everyone will know that it was always so embraced, and it was Our Glorious Leader who had the idea. The credit may not go to those who deserve it; but the field will have moved forward.

Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it. And it does that at least partly fueled by our pettiness and our rivalries. Science is alchemy: it turns shit into gold. Keep that in mind the next time some blogger decries the ill manners of a bunch of climate scientists under continual siege by forces with vastly deeper pockets and much louder megaphones.

As for me, I’ll follow the blogs with interest and see how this all shakes out. But even if someone, somewhere, proves that a handful of climatologists deliberately fudged their findings — well, I’ll be there with everyone else calling to have the bastards run out of town, but it won’t matter much in terms of the overall weight of the data.  I went running through Toronto the other day on a 17°C November afternoon. Canada’s west coast is currently underwater. Sea level continues its 3mm/yr creep up the coasts of the world, the western Siberian permafrost turns to slush. Swathes of California and Australia are pretty much permanent firestorm zones these days. The glaciers retreat, the Arctic ice cap shrinks, a myriad migratory species still show up at their northern destinations weeks before they’re supposed to. The pine beetle furthers its westward invasion, leaving dead forests in its wake— the winters, you see, are no longer cold enough to hit that lethal reset button that once kept their numbers in check.

I could go on, but you get my drift. And if the Climate-Change Hoax Machine is powerful enough to do all that, you know what?

They deserve to win.

2 Responses to “Why Science Works, even when Scientists are A-holes.”

  1. kronocide Says:

    I agree with it and think it’s a very strong point. However, the scientists, despite their human foibles, start from a baseline of objectivity. They’re supposed to be objective from the onset and it’s hammered into them, though they may occasionally drift from that.

    The deniers, not even close.

    But I get your point that this fallibility may actually enhance their sum objectivity if understood in the context you present.

  2. BlueRock Says:

    An interesting take. Thanks.

    Of course, it’s yet another nugget of argument that a certain demographic will be immune to – they just know someone used “trick” and “hide” in an email so ~200 years of science can be safely jettisoned. :/

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