December 10, 2022

Nature editor questions “the religion of science”

The public should treat scientists with a bit less reverence, says a senior editor of Nature in a controversial column in The Guardian.

The public should treat scientists with a bit less reverence, says a senior editor of Nature in a controversial column in The Guardian. Henry Gee writes that scientists acquired an undeserved aura of absolute authority in the 20th century.

“… those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.”

But when errors became apparent or when the results of their work backfired, as with nuclear meltdowns or Agent Orange, the public lost faith in science and began to put its trust in charlatans spruiking alien abduction stories or miracle stem cell treatments. Unfortunately, science continues to be regarded with religious awe, says Gee, in the media.

“Even the more highbrow effusions on science have yet to learn this lesson. TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy – somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable. If there are dissenting views, they aren’t voiced by an interviewer, but by other scientists, and ‘we’ (the great unwashed) can only sit back and watch uncomprehending as if the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another.”

(For a straightforward assertion that science is a religion, Gee references evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, who argues that “Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god.”)

What the public – and scientists – ought to remember, says Gee, is that science is provisional knowledge:

“… scientists weren’t honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn’t about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.”

Michael Cook
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