Via Crooked Timber, I see that philosopher Simon Blackburn would like to dispel some myths. (He does this in the inaugural article of a Times Higher Education series “in which academics range beyond their area of expertise”.) Of the ten myths Blackburn identifies for busting, the one that caught my attention was “the myth of the scientist”:
This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false. There is no such thing as a scientist, and it is a shame that William Whewell, a rather patchy philosopher (although a Cambridge man), invented the term. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on. These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.
Problems such as foot-and-mouth disease, global temperatures and badgers, to name but three, need different baskets of expertises, if indeed there are any to be had. A fortiori, there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist. A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth. This ignores the huge proportion of physical scientists who work for the misnamed Ministry of Defence, and the biological scientists who work for big pharma, trying to get around the patents on drugs that do little for the disease burden of the world but that can be sold to the rich. Scientists have one catch-all answer when confronted with such unfortunate facts, which is to claim that the critic must be some kind of relativist. This is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.
I’m still tossing this passage around to get clear on what misperception exactly Blackburn thinks he’s challenging.
Maybe he’s claiming merely that scientists ought to attend to the tether of their expertise more carefully, and that the public ought not to be swayed by an illegitimate appeal to authority by some scientist (“scientist”?) gassing off about matters that belong to someone else’s scientific discipline.
But that strikes me as common sense, not myth-busting.
Thus, I’m turning it over to you all. What exactly is Blackburn trying to claim about “science” and “scientists” here? And, is he right about those claims?