Pure Pedantry

This is pretty funny, but also quite true. It is from a comment on a post at Chicago Boyz:

One of the arguments in Jonathan Rauch’s “In Defense of Prejudice,” is another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. “Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists,” says Hull, “it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science,” which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives-ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. “Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to ‘get that son of a bitch,’” says Hull. “Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that ‘showing that son of a bitch’ supplied to their own research.”

This led Chicago Boyz author John Jay to comment:

The scientific method is a mechanism for the evolution of thought. Evolution depends on conflict and stuggle as its motive engine. Conflict requires competitive personalities. Those personalities are not always the easiest to deal with. QED, most good scientists are jackasses.

I couldn’t agree more, but I will go a little further. The fact that many good scientists have prickly personalities is irrelevant.

I was having this conversation about global warming data with a skeptical friend of mine. He didn’t understand why I would accept temperature data without that much skepticism. My argument is that whether or not I like the guy who made gathered the data, I trust the scientific process enough to produce data that is reliable. This trust is justified because the scientific process is so competitive that even if you do cheat or lie about your data is unlikely that is going to remain secret for long. The more controversial a subject is the more likely that someone is going to check your data, largely because the professional benefits of showing that the prevailing wisdom is wrong are so high.

Thus, my opinions about the person who creates the data are irrelevant because the scientific process is sound enough such that most data is reliable. Science as a system is organized in a manner that makes the aggregate more trustworthy than any individual scientist.

This is related to the idea of scientists being prickly because it makes that fact really not matter.

Let me put this another way. Many libertarian theorists argue that capitalism is a moral economic system because it renders its participants opinions about one another irrelevant. For example, if I buy a cup of coffee, I don’t care what the guy making the coffee is like. I don’t care whether he is black or white or brown. I don’t care what his politics are. I just want the coffee. If he is willing to give it to me for an amount that I am willing to pay, we have an honest trade and that is the end of our interaction. In this sense, capitalism as a system adds to social cohesion. So long as all interactions between individuals are voluntary, capitalism is a force that makes us ignore divisive factors.

I feel like science is a lot like that. Anyone who has met me will tell you that I am not fond of people in general. I am fond of few scientists in particular. I basically want to go to work, do my experiments, and come home with a minimum of chit-chat. (Perhaps there are several people at my office who don’t appreciate me for this. I wouldn’t know.) However, I am hardly at the unpleasant extreme of the personality spectrum. The history of science is littered with the stories of truly self-absorbed pricks.

But that all doesn’t matter. What matters is what we publish because that defines the level of our interaction. Through the vehicle of publishing my interaction with other scientists — even scientists I may actively dislike — is limited. Publishing, and more generally science as a system, allows two scientists who rub each other the wrong way to interact in a meaningful way.

In this sense, science is following a similar argument to the one I forwarded about capitalism. Science is morally organized because it encourages interactions between individuals with divergent interests through means other than conflict.

UPDATE: More on the subject of scientific disagreement by Steven Postrel at Organizations and Markets:

Hull [author of Science as a Process (1988)] argues, however, that variation in beliefs among research schools, as well as rivalry across schools, prevents this self-sealing problem from ever becoming a reality. Even close collaborators disagree about many aspects of their theories (though they may try to publicly suppress these differences for political reasons), so even if one school of thought comes to dominate a discipline, there will always be different “takes” on what counts as data and how data should be interpreted. He empirically demonstrates this claim about disagreement within schools of thought, with detailed evidence from evolutionary biology and systematics. In one striking instance, scientists who were closely identified as theoretical and political allies in the hottest disputes within systematics, joined at the hip so to speak, found themselves unable to co-author a textbook due to internal disagreements.

This incoherence about what theory means and how it should be interpreted ensures that self-sealing beliefs can’t be locked in. It is an irreducible source of evolutionary variation. It’s bad for an individual scientist if his views are incoherent — he’ll get ignored or picked apart — but the overall field avoids getting stuck in self-confirmation by blurriness and disagreement over basic definitions, premises, interpretations, and so on. So while we rightly push for greater coherence in our theoretical structure, our failure to achieve it may make scientific progress more likely in the long run.

Read the whole thing.


  1. #1 anonymous
    August 14, 2007

    Many libertarian theorists argue that capitalism is a moral economic system because it renders its participants opinions about one another irrelevant….In this sense, capitalism as a system adds to social cohesion. So long as all interactions between individuals are voluntary, capitalism is a force that makes us ignore divisive factors.

    You could also argue exactly the opposite, that it’s an immoral system, for the same reason. Capitalism contributes to one of the most divisive factors in our society, economic class. And since people are more than just consumers, it means that their class-based personal, ethical, and political interests are going to be at odds, leadin to factionalization rather than cohesion.