Adventures in Ethics and Science

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?

Comments

  1. #1 PhysioProf
    April 27, 2008

    I think he is conflating science as a substantive body of knowledge with science as an epistemological strategy. (See, I can throw down some philosomophy!)

  2. #2 Sam C
    April 27, 2008

    How about Myth No. 11: the Myth of Philosophy, the misguided notion that any philospher has ever had anything of value to say?

    Philosophers and Bayesian statisticians both seem to delight in telling other people where there going wrong, while rarely doing any productive work themselves.

    For a philosopher, this word-wanker certainly loves to wave his hands and generalise wildly. Do you think he has heard of straw man arguments?

  3. #3 alias Ernest Major
    April 27, 2008

    Consider the analogy of the “myth of the sportsman”. (There’s no such thing as a sportman; there’s only cricketers, footballers, golfers, canoeists, cyclists etc.)

    This is equally true and equally false as this “myth of the scientist”. You can’t just plunk down a person from one discipline into another and expect him to function at a competitive level, but there are qualities, skills and talents that transfer from one discipline to another, which gives the scientist/sportman an edge over a member of the general public, and there are people who function competively in multiple disciplines.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    April 27, 2008

    How about Myth No. 11: the Myth of Philosophy, the misguided notion that any philospher has ever had anything of value to say?

    Hey, wait a second! Some of my best friends are philosomophers! What’s your fucking problem?

    You can’t just plunk down a person from one discipline into another and expect him to function at a competitive level, but there are qualities, skills and talents that transfer from one discipline to another, which gives the scientist/sportman an edge over a member of the general public, and there are people who function competively in multiple disciplines.

    Absolutely! In fact, I believe that scientist/sportsmen are a superior race of human beings, and should be granted the societal power that their superior powers merit, indeed, demand!

  5. #5 Nat
    April 27, 2008

    It’s undoubtably true that putting a scientist into another field means that s/he no longer has the expertise that they had in the previous field.

    However, since the source of information is clearly so important then the question might become does this hypothetical scientist actually professionally function better in this new field because of their general scientific training than does Simon Blackburn heckling from the bleachers?

  6. #6 Grad
    April 27, 2008

    If he’d like to go down this path, I’d like to see a concise definition for biologist, chemist and physicist that handles how each group self identifies while working on wilding overlapping topics. Preferably that doesn’t require the use of terms like physical chemist or biochemist.

  7. #7 chezjake
    April 27, 2008

    Blackburn is off the mark in several respects in putting down Whewell’s neologism of “scientist.” Prior to that, many writers used the phrase “men of science,” so that “scientists” just becomes an easier way to express the same thing. (And don’t even bother asking Janet, Zuska, and the other women scientists here about which term they prefer. You are likely to get your shoes puked upon.)

    What’s more, Whewell himself and many of his contemporaries and predecessors were multi-disciplinarians. Admittedly, it’s much harder today to be truly competent in multiple fields, but it’s not unheard of. Indeed, we have many cross-disciplinary specialties today that require in-depth knowledge of major chunks of different sciences — biochemistry, molecular genetics, biophysics, ecology, and geology, to name just a few.

    All of those who work in those fields are “scientists,” because they share the general goal of gaining/extending knowledge by application of the scientific method. Why should there not be a collective noun that includes all those working in the many disciplines subsumed under the term “science”?

  8. #8 HP
    April 27, 2008

    Isn’t his statement equivalent to saying that there’s no such thing as classes?

    “There is no such thing as a scientist…. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on.”

    “There is no such thing as a musician…. There are only violinists, composers, singers, pianists and so on.”

    “There is no such thing as a rodent…. There are only rats, mice, squirrels, capybaras and so on.”

    “There is no such thing as furniture…. There are only chairs, sofas, tables, bureaus and so on.”

  9. #9 chezjake
    April 27, 2008

    Grad said, “If he’d like to go down this path, I’d like to see a concise definition for biologist, chemist and physicist that handles how each group self identifies while working on wilding overlapping topics. Preferably that doesn’t require the use of terms like physical chemist or biochemist.”

    More to the point, I’d like to see Blackburn produce a concise definition of those terms that doesn’t use the word “science” in explaining how they go about their work.

  10. #10 jeffk
    April 27, 2008

    If I was told that our physics lab was getting a new undergraduate, and I could choose between a chemistry major and an English major, I know which I’d choose.

  11. #11 Will TS
    April 27, 2008

    I agree with HP. The classes we (humans) commonly use are defined by arbitrary boundaries that we define. It isn’t helpful to define rodents as individuals (this rat, that rat, and that other rat) when we are trying to describe characteristics that unite all rodents. So we find qualities (that we define) that encompass all rats and distinguish them from mice. And characteristics that join all rodents and distinguish them from other mammals.

    Likewise, there are arbitrary traits that join scientists into a common class and arbitrary traits that divide that class into biologists, chemists, physicists and so on. All these classes are arbitrary. The class ‘scientists’ isn’t any less valid than the classes ‘biologists’ or ‘physicists’ or ‘sofas’.

  12. #12 Kim
    April 27, 2008

    This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention.

    The entire myth-busting became much more entertaining when I realized that he could be debunking Dr. Science.

  13. #13 bill
    April 27, 2008

    What a windbag — “though a Cambridge man” — is that a joke? It had better be a joke.

    And yeah, he’s full of shit, for reasons given by others above.

    This made me laugh, though:

    How about Myth No. 11: the Myth of Philosophy, the misguided notion that any philospher has ever had anything of value to say?

    In that case, why are you reading this blog? (“Oh, I didn’t mean Janet, she’s different — why, some of my best friends are philosophers — “)

  14. #14 S. Rivlin
    April 27, 2008

    Of course, there is no such thing as a Neuroscientist, only a neurochemist, a neuropharmacologist, a neurophysiologist, etc. Yet, neuroscientists convene in national and international conventions every year.

  15. #15 chezjake
    April 27, 2008

    Maybe Blackburn needs an example he can relate to. There is no such thing as a philosopher; there are only ethicists, logicians, metaphysicists (Or are they metaphysicians?) and epistemologists.

  16. #16 Andrea Bottaro
    April 27, 2008

    Sounds just like a case of praxis envy. Many philosophers suffer from it.

  17. #17 Anon
    April 27, 2008

    Well…

    When Targ and Puthoff, physicists, were confronted with a cheater (Uri Geller), their expertise arguably acted as blinders; their conclusions were precisely what they should have come to, given that they could trust their observations, as is typically the case in their field, where objects do not tend to cheat.

    When Blondlott was confronted with a threshold visual phenomenon, he did not recognize it as such, but rather thought it was a new physical phenomenon. He did not recognize the need to guard against an expectancy effect–again, assuming he could trust his observations–and drew wrong conclusions.

    There are many other examples–some are collected as “pathological science”; others are still out there, I am sure.

    But. To see this as a problem is to see, artificially, “the scientist” as a meaningful unit. Any given scientist is most valuable as a member of a scientific community; the vaunted “scientific method” includes the self-correcting process of sharing with a critical audience of fellow scientists.

    Blackburn’s scientist is not a myth, but a strawman.

  18. #18 John S. Wilkins
    April 27, 2008

    He’s referring to what Science Fiction devotees know as the Brain Eater: when someone makes an impact in one genre or field, and then tries to extend it to other fields where he (it’s usually a he) is as brainless and uninformed as anyone else. Examples: Jim Watson, Macfarlane Burnet, Richard Dawkins ;-)

  19. #19 Lab Lemming
    April 28, 2008

    And what is the name that Mr. Blackburn gives to the method that biologists, chemists, physicists etc. use to define and solve their problems?

  20. #20 Mark Tyrrell Frank
    April 28, 2008

    I think maybe he is objecting to abuse of the word “scientist” and “scientific” as a kind of appeal of superior authority. E.g. “scientists have discovered that drinking red wine is good for you” “it has been proven scientifically that biofuels cause environmental damage”. The implication being that the details are too complicated for anyone but a scientist to understand but because scientists say it we should accept it.

    This depends on some assumptions.

    That there something called the scientific method which all scientists use to get at the truth.

    This method is a superior way to to determine the truth over all others.

    Using this method requires exceptional abilities and years of education.

    The people who use this method (the scientists) are only motivated by discovering the truth.

    I am not saying he is right – but I am guessing that is what is behind it.

  21. #21 James
    April 28, 2008

    To continue a theme:

    There’s no such thing as a Platonist; there are only Aristotelians.

    There’s no such thing as Hydrogen; there’s only proton #1, proton #2, proton #3…

  22. #22 Azkyroth
    April 28, 2008
    How about Myth No. 11: the Myth of Philosophy, the misguided notion that any philospher has ever had anything of value to say?

    In that case, why are you reading this blog? (“Oh, I didn’t mean Janet, she’s different — why, some of my best friends are philosophers — “)

    From my perspective, if we distinguish between “philosophers” who try to develop useful and productive ways of thinking about things and helpful guidelines for action, and “philosophers” who try to determine the nature of reality and the answers to – and the identity and nature of – “the big questions” by thought experiment and rhetoric without reference to the real world – and occasionally presume to possess veto power over the descriptive and prescriptive constructions of others, and direct this comment specifically at the latter group, that comment becomes both comprehensible and largely correct.

  23. #23 MikeP
    April 28, 2008

    Sam C, has it ever occurred to you to wonder what that Ph in PhD means? If Isaac Newton (say) were alive today, he might be surprised to hear you dismiss his work in such a cavalier fashion.

    I think the key part in what Blackburn is saying is “and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention.” I suspect what’s unsaid there is “for reasons other than their speciality.” As John S. Wilkins says, what Dawkins has to say about religion and the sociology thereof may be interesting, but outside of the realm of evolutionary biology as it applies to religious arguments, Dawkins has no more special insight on the matter than anybody else. Yet some lend much greater weight to his arguments *because* he is a scientist.

    I don’t think Blackburn is saying that there’s no such thing as classes, exactly; what he’s saying is that the violinist doesn’t *necessarily* know how to conduct an orchestra any more than the conductor *necessarily* knows how to play 3rd violin. Both can do their jobs quite acceptably without knowing the other’s job, but the myth Blackburn is attacking is that since the violinist plays in an orchestra, he or she must know how to run an orchestra. (Or, to use a sports analogy, retired hockey players don’t necessarily make good coaches.)

    “A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth.” Given that it took exactly what, two comments before everybody who’s ever studied in the field of philosophy was attacked, I’m surprised that one got left alone. Usually whenever matters like this come under discussion, there’s a scientist barking about the sacredness of their study, as if those who work in the sciences somehow have a lock on dedication to truth and improving the lot of humanity.

  24. #24 Levi
    April 28, 2008

    ahh, there’s nothing like philosophy hate. My reading of his main claim is that the notion that there is a person who, because of their scientific training in one particular field, can speak with authority on another distinct field is outright false. This seems trivially true, so I wonder why there is such outright anamosity towards it.

    If you were to meet a guy well-versed in American political history, you may want to ask him a question about a current event, like what evidence there is that a candidate like Clinton staying in the race after many people claimed that she was done for hurts that party’s chances in the election. But if you were to ask him a question about the upcoming election in Germany, his authority is virtually nihil.

    Sure, he knows the methods by which you acquire knowledge in that domain. But given that all we know about him is that he is a specialist in the history of American politics, he really cannot speak from authority on anything outside of his specialty. This is not to say that he could not also be a specialist in the history of German political history, but we ought not think that his knowledge in one restricted domain can be extended to another.

    I think this reading is correct given his claim that “there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist”. So the notion that we ought to listen to an appointed spokesperson for science in general does seem false.

    Will TS: Sure, there is a group that can be described by the word “scientists”. I think what Blackburn would reply is that using that as your only criterion for determining whether someone has authority on a given topic would be foolish when you can easily determine whether they have specialized knowledge in relevant fields.

    HP: To be fair to the analogy, would you ask a classical violinist whether 3/4 time can be easily used in jazz music? How about polka? Sure, they may be more likely to know these answers than some random person off the street but we should just go directly to those with first-hand knowledge if we require some sort of authoritative spokesperson.

  25. #25 MRW
    April 28, 2008

    I’m surprised no one has noted the contrast between the theme of this series (that the writer must write about something outside his/her expertise) and the subject matter (that “scientists” bear no special skill outside their area of expertise).

    There’s some validity, as their are certainly examples of scientists from one field saying quite stupid things about other fields. There’s a danger that someone accomplished in one field will leap to quickly into another without being grounded with the collective knowledge of the field.

    However, I do think that there is such a thing as a scientist in two senses. One is the merely categorical sense. I’m a spectroscopist. I’m an analytical chemist. I’m a chemist. I’m a physical scientist. I’m a scientist. The hierarchical categories have meaning and use.

    The boundaries are also fuzzy – I’m currently working with a physicists and a biochemist, under the direction of someone trained as an organic chemist, and the objects of our research are biological cells. Given the correct attitude, scientists can go outside of their own field and contribute much more than a non-scientist could – they’re starting with a leg up in common ground. By the time someone who began as a non-scientist acquired that common ground, they’d have to be considered a scientist.

  26. #26 Tony Jeremiah
    April 28, 2008

    There seem to be two premises embedded within Blackburn’s commentary.

    The first (related to your insight) concerns the increasingly specialized nature of “scientists” (generally defined here as holding a PhD). As far as I understand the history of being awarded the PhD, it meant having a broad knowledge of academic subjects of the day. Today, the degree really means having expertise of a particular research area and/or topic, and, a specific research method(s) which accompanies the topic. So the first premise is really the recognition that there has been an increase in the knowledge specificity of scientists over time, which is a necessity given the increase in the breadth and depth of knowledge over time.

    The second premise (contained in the second paragraph) is what Goodstein referred to as “the myth of the noble scientist”, the belief that all scientists are virtuous, upright human beings, impervious to drive and ambition, who seek truth dispassionately and are incapable of acting unethically. Presumably that is what he implies when he writes, “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 is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.”

    Reference

    Goodstein, D. (1991). Scientific fraud. American Scholar, 60, 505-515.

  27. #27 Mike the Mad Biologist
    April 28, 2008

    I think he’s a pompous ass who couldn’t think of anything to write. Seriously, I’m not a Ph.D. statistician (nor I claim to be), but I know far more about statistics than most people.

    But bogus strawman constructs are much more fun…

  28. #28 John Quiggin
    April 28, 2008

    I suspect this has something to do with the fact that he’s a global warming delusionist, though the obvious reading of his point suggests he should listen to the experts in the field instead of using his status (I hesitate to say expertise on the basis of what I’ve seen of him) as a philosopher as a platform for amateur climatology.

  29. #29 Pete M.
    April 29, 2008

    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.

    So, I just don’t get what’s going on here. I take it that part of this screed is rejecting the old Platonic conflation of learning with virtue, but, c’mon, who accepts that anymore?

    Some scientists do bad things (shocking, I know). But what is this response Blackburn cites? “Scientists” (which don’t exist, only physicists and so on) respond by calling their critics relativists, but no one knows what that means. I have two issues with this claim. One is that I don’t see scientists smearing their critics with claims of relativism when it is pointed out that some scientists are corrupt, or at least less than fully virtuous. The second is that I thought I knew perfectly well what relativism means.

    When I read this the first time, I thought Blackburn was talking about moral or ethical relativism, but then his description of it as a Berkeleyian term got me thinking he must mean something like a metaphysical relativism or a postmodern claim about the relativism of truth. At any rate, I understand what any of the three means, and all I need is for Blackburn to be clear about which sense he’s using the term in!

    No matter which sense Blackburn is using the term, I don’t see how calling the critic a relativist responds at all to the claim that scientists don’t always do the most virtuous thing (even if it is morally permissible to pursue cures for diseases that affect only the rich, it may be more virtuous to pursue cures for diseases that affect far more people but will not net so much profit). I would think scientists would at least make sense in responding to the critic. Anyone get Blackburn’s point here?

  30. #30 Wayne Dawson
    April 29, 2008

    I often call myself a scientist when people ask me what I do for a living. I have the supposed “doctor of science” and have fortunately studied broadly enough to know how humbling such a thought can be; though the degree itself could never teach that on its own.

    I would say that it is certainly wise to be reticent about boasting your credentials when confronted with a new and challenging problem. It is wise to be cautious and question your bright ideas regularly. In short, I would say humility is the guiding principle of good science. I say this because discovery is not something that can be programmed, planned or proclaimed beforehand. Likewise, a tolerant willingness to listen to other ideas that don’t fit with your own preconceptions takes a great deal of humility.

    So what would I say to this commentary? I would say that science is a particular type of epistemology. It is usually applied to problems that have (at least in principle) a possible solution. One then develops a model of some kind and tests it to see how accurately it agrees with the stated problem and its weaknesses.

    When we learn a discipline of science, we learn techniques and tools that aid us in developing those models. It takes a life time to appreciate the variety of problems involved, and obviously, the difficulties confronted by a biologist have little immediate comparison to those of a physicist; particularly at the level of how well defined the problem is.

    However, it is the tools and techniques I have learned that are the most important. It does not guarantee that I will solve a new problem, even a new problem in my own particular specialty. It is important to recognize the limitations of these tools and knowledge, but that is exactly humility. Humility is gained through hard teaching. Yet I would still say that an attitude to apply those tools and techniques (plus the humility) faithfully pay off in doing good research.

    Likewise, several posters have mentioned musicians are sportsmen. A pianist would have more of the tools and techniques that help in learning to play an oboe than someone who has never learned any musical instrument in their entire life. With sports, certainly someone who is an expert at a particular sport would have a better idea what is required to achieve similar status in a different sport than someone who has never done any sport.

    But perhaps the author is really speaking to people who think because they know one field, therefore they know them all. Such lack of humility is common and often rewarded it seems. Yet is that saying what science is about, or is that speaking about some of the people who claim they do science when they are actually falling short of their duties? It is easy to do, and I’m sure I fail somewhere every day, but hope is in the fact that we can love wisdom enough to aim at getting better each day.

    As to vested interests, that is hard to know. We all sin. Yet a scientist working on a new drug may really think it will work better. At least the people I have any real acquaintance with in the pharmaceutical companies have a real passion for what they are doing. They may fail, they may be wrong, but that is the real hard knocks of life. We don’t get something for nothing, and the whole investment costs something. Despite hard work and diligence, failure happens. Who in this world can honestly say he can know and plan his own success?

  31. #31 Tony Jeremiah
    April 29, 2008

    Wayne,

    Well stated commentary on humility and research. It’s close to something I heard or read somewhere once that went something like, avoid the fallacy of perfection because by definition it means no room for improvement.

    Psychologist Robert Sternberg also has produced some interesting ideas about psychological factors that may explain why intelligent, successful scientists might engage in scientific misconduct. One of them being the omniscience fallacy (i.e., the belief that expertise and success in one field leads one to believe one is now an expert in all fields).

    The rest of the factors, I think, can be explained by your general point about not maintaining a sense of humility. Presumably Blackburn is attempting to say the same thing, but the tone of his commentary is closer to a rant.

  32. #32 Costanza
    April 29, 2008

    Personally, I find the antiquated term “natural philosopher” to be more descriptive (accurate) and therefore more appropriate…not to mention a pretty darn good compromise, too.

  33. #33 Zuska
    April 30, 2008

    He’s trying to kill God and religion, where God = The Scientific Authority and religion = science. Don’t want any uppity scientists trying to tell the government what to do! You science-y people can each have your little niche where you may work in service to humanity but don’t get too big for your britches. You’re just specialized labor.

  34. #34 Lab Lemming
    May 1, 2008

    What Zuska said, with the exception of those “scientists” who are also Cambridge boys and therefore tolerable.
    -LL

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