I come neither to praise Caesar, nor to bury him.
To paraphrase the late, great Chico Escuela: science been berry berry good to me. First and foremost as a 'civilian,' just another man-on-the-street who, like the rest of us, has escaped horrible deaths who-knows-how-many-times thanks to the timely administration of a vaccine or antibiotic. Thank you Drs. Jenner, Lister, Koch (no, not those Kochs, silly!), Fleming, and many more, mostly nameless today. Sitting here typing on this computer I, of course, benefit directly from the contributions of the likes of Faraday, Tesla, Edison, Shockley, and so many more.
Clearly, space does not permit me to thank everyone responsible for making me what I am today: something rather more than a scabrous, rock-wielding troglodyte. Suffice it, instead, to just say, "Thanks, science."
And thus concludes the Paean To The Giants portion of our program. Now let's get to the naughty bits.
In the interest of truth in advertising I should also briefly mention that science has been berry berry good to me professionally and financially, as well. At the tender age of six I announced to my parents, "I want to be a scientist when I grow up!" (much to their horror...Dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps into the aluminum siding business). In my first career I was a university professor and biomedical researcher (so long, and thanks for all those grant dollars!). In my second career I was a biomedical entrepreneur (not a particularly noteworthy one, you understand...you've probably never heard of me...but I managed to make some useful things happen that might not have happened otherwise). Today, as mostly a small-time gentleman farmer, I consult in my 'spare' time for a variety of start-up biomedical companies, as well as biotech investors. These careers have at least kept the wolves from the door, put one kid through college and another into a well-paying craft, and were deeply satisfying when they weren't incredibly frustrating. On balance, I feel like my career gave more back to society than it extracted from it...though it's admittedly a close call, and Opinions Differ on this topic.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I've spent the better part of an increasingly long lifetime thinking a lot about the role and place of science in society today...particularly, though hardly exclusively, biological science...and have more than my fair share of passionately held opinions on this topic. Slowly but surely, I find that this body of opinions, for so long disparate and inchoate, have begun to crystallize (please don't say 'petrify'!) into something like (dare I say it?) A Theory, which just this morning on the can I decided to christen Science Disorder Spectrum (or, for short, SDS). Hereinafter follow some of the main postulates and, as I see them anyway, consequences of SDS.
Postulate I: Science Matters. A Lot.
Since I'm writing for DKos here I won't belabor this point; the odds are good that you already get it. Science is much of the reason why, like I say, we're not all scabrous rock-wielding troglodytes today, with 30-year life expectancies, mutely shaking our hairy fists at the stars and cursing the whims of angry, incomprehensible gods as we bury our broken children. Philosophy didn't grant us this great boon (except insofar as Philosophy...via the intermediate of 'Natural Philosophy'...was the mother of Science). Politics sure as hell didn't. Nor Economics (really, what's the difference between Adam Smith's Invisible Hand and the Flying Spaghetti Monster?). Religion? More often than not it has conspired to keep us troglodytes...or, worse: serfs (but see below). Art? Love it...wouldn't want to live without it...but I have found that I can't eat it. Law? Great stuff indeed but, without science, law is pretty much just random opinion with a gun behind it. Most everything we touch, every day, that lightens or benefits or bejewels our lives was/is the child, ultimately, of science, and science alone. You want to rail against Science-With-A-Capital-S? Dude, peddle it somewhere else. I'm kinda busy here figgering out how this assemblage of matter and energy works and how I can turn that understanding to our mutual advantage.
Postulate II: Science Sucks. A Lot.
Having long watched the sausage of science being made, from inside the grinder, by now I'm pretty well sick of it (which has a lot to do with why I'm now a farmer). When my kid went off to college I prayed to God that he wouldn't get seduced into a career in science, and most particularly not academic science. My prayers were answered: he became a lawyer (be careful what you wish for!).
Science is an activity designed and conducted by human beings, and hence in its day-to-day reality suffers from all the foibles, weaknesses, prejudices, ignorance, and avarice that people can bring to all the rest of their activities. Sure, to a certain extent it is superior to most other major human activities in this regard because baked into the paradigm of science (at least the way we do it here, today) is an appreciation of this problem and a systematic attempt to address it. Peer review of grant proposals and manuscripts submitted for publication are great examples. What have you overlooked? How are you beating your own drum or feathering your own nest? Did you do the right experiment? Analyze and interpret it correctly? Is this really the most important question to ask (and for society to pay for) at this time? In principle, peer review stands at the gate, demanding answers to all these questions before you get to enter into the Temple. But, of course, peer review itself is a human activity riddled with human foibles, and so too often it too is plagued by human weakness: cronyism, self-interest, group-think, narrow-mindedness, superficiality. It probably works right more often than it does not...which is something you can't say about a lot of other social safety mechanisms. But when it fails, it fails spectacularly, and it fails spectacularly too often, when one considers how important it is.
The same thing goes for the principle of reproducibility (others will attempt to reproduce whatever work has led you to make an interesting claim, so if you're wrong or if you just Made Shit Up, the truth will out). Meh. Works great when it works at all (a good example was the recent stunning claim that any type of human body cell could be quickly and easily turned into a stem cell just by exposing it to an acidic medium, which upon closer inspection turned out to be complete horseshit). Important, stunning claims do get tested, and there BS does get called when it's found. But most scientific findings aren't 'important' in that sense, or stunning; most are just another brick in the wall. And most of those probably don't get tested, ever, not directly anyway; you don't exactly build a proud career in science by testing other people's minutia.
"As scientists, much of what we know," I always liked to remind my students, "is probably wrong." Much of the "wrong" is wrong merely in the sense that it needs refinement, and that's OK; that's how science works. But too much is "wrong" in the sense that it's mostly just BS, and nobody knows it.
[Note to climate-deniers and creationists: both evolution and anthropogenic climate change are "stunning" claims, like Newton's theory of gravity, not "just another brick in the wall." Accordingly, these, and their foundations, are studied and tested and reproduced exhaustively...probably too much...and are found to be solid. So you don't get to say, "Well, DocDawg pointed out that most of what we know is wrong, so evolution is just BS." That's not what I said.]
So, anyway, one big way in which science sucks is that it too frequently doesn't work right. But, still, more often than not it does work...if it didn't you wouldn't be reading this now, you'd be gingerly teasing gazelle bones out of a fire at the mouth of your cave. Still, think where we'd be today if we were really serious about discouraging cheating in science, instead of just slapping it on the wrist.
Postulate III: Science Tends To Bring Out The Worst In Us
...in so many ways. Science is, unavoidably, big business: the ability to manipulate matter and energy is the ability to get rich and/or powerful fast, and who doesn't want a piece of that action? Thus, we have Big Pharma, Monsanto, directed energy weapons, the NSA, fracking, black markets for transplantable organs, human cloning (maybe not yet, but not for lack of trying), oxycontin, hydrogen bombs, dirty bombs, smart bombs, shoe bombs, and Paris Hilton (who, without the science that made electronic media possible, you never would have heard of). Science is supposed to be value-free; society is supposed to pick up its end of the load by deciding what science will and will not be used for. But society has been notably shirking its end of the deal for several hundred years now. How do we change that? I honestly don't know.
Less sinister, but still problematic, is the fact that becoming a Big Name Scientist is a ticket to fame and fortune, and this, plus constantly having adoring microphones shoved in your face, certainly helps to bring out the worst in scientists. Consider George Church's constant nonsense proposing to bring back the dinosaurs and Neanderthals, or pretty much anything Craig Venter has ever said. Endlessly embarrassing. But these are merely the few most egregious examples. Lower-powered examples abound. For every one modest, beautiful, selfless, brilliant soul I've known in science (on the order of an Albert Szent-Gyorgyi) I've known a hundred petty, grasping, climbing, tyrant wannabes. It's no different in this profession than in any other. Still, it's just more unseemly in this profession, because this profession actually matters.
Postulate IV: Science Wastes Enormous Time And Energy Competing With Religion
Just as religious belief should not (but too often does) trump scientific knowledge, so too science should STFU about religious faith. Sure, if some fundamentalist nut-job starts shooting his mouth off about how carbon dioxide isn't a pollutant because God meant people to exhale it, then ecologists and atmospheric chemists should chime in to point out the obvious fallacies there. Or if some Texas fundie wants 'intelligent design' taught in public school science courses as a theory co-equal to evolution, it's important for scientists to point out forcefully that intelligent design is pseudo-science, not science. But, as both a progressive Christian and a scientist (but not, I hasten to add, a Christian Scientist), I must say that when Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking go flapping their gums about the non-existence of God my eyes glaze over, as should every thinking person's.
First off, 'God' is a notably ill-defined term, even (maybe especially) as scientists like Hawking and Dawkins use it. If you mean 'omnipotent old man with beard and sandals hovering in the sky' then, sure, God's existence or non-existence can be addressed by scientists. But, loud-mouthed as they are, the fundies who believe in that God are but a tiny fraction of Christians (or, I would guess, Buddhists or Muslims or Hindus or Amerinds or what-have-you). So it's a straw-man (or should I say 'straw-god'?) argument; why bother arguing nonsense?
But if, as many, many people of faith do, you mean by 'God' something fuzzy and unavoidably incoherent about First Cause, our unbreakable bonds to one another and to our world, life's boundless but frequently fickle and utterly undeserved kindness to us, or such-like, then No Scientists Need Apply. Even merely regarding God-As-My-Name-For-First-Cause (where the likes of a Hawking usually weigh in), scientists per se have nothing more useful or intelligent to contribute to the conversation than does Joe Sixpack. First Cause is the question of the origins of the physical universe and of our particular flavor of physical laws...the thing just the other side of the Big Bang poetically speaking, or whether there even was an origin, and what the hell 'origin' even means in this context. The issue of First Cause is thus outside of the physical universe and outside of physical law, and thus inaccessible to science by definition. Nowhere is this becoming more clear than in cosmology, where brane theory and multiverse theories are becoming ever more widely regarded as completely untestable and their consequences unobservable, which makes them (at least according to several notable cosmologists) Not Science (even if, in fact, they might be 'right'), but, in fact, Faith. Myself, I like to think of multiverse theories as Religion With Math. If Religion With Math makes you feel good or brings order or meaning to your life, fantastic. Go with it. But don't go telling me that your religion is superior to my own, because that's an old, old, argument and it is always, always b*llsh*t. You live your faith, and I'll live mine. Now let's get back to making God's world a better place through science, hmm?
Science is not the opponent of (or even the alternative to) religious faith. Science is the opponent of and alternative to religious pseudo-science. There's a difference. Any sensible scientist should be able to keep that straight, but too many of us don't.
Postulate V: Even With Science's Warts And All, There's No Going Back.
Properly applied by honorable folk of modest demeanor, science rocks. And we have no choice but to keep rocking it. Too many genies are already out of the bottle, from nuclear fission to robotics, asymmetric warfare to genetic engineering. They'll eat us alive if we turn our backs on rationality now, half-way across the stream. We must fight to protect science from, at one and the same time, its opponents, its pseudo-practitioners, and its self-serving boosters, all of whose numbers are legion. So if I get exercised about what I take to be your ill-formed views regarding, say, vaccination, or genetically modified crops, or when life 'begins,' or how old the earth is, or climate change, or homeopathy, or acupuncture, or 'God,' or whatever, please understand that mostly I'm not trying to attack you, but rather to simultaneously defend science and, paradoxically, to take it down a peg, too.
Because while we're still a long, long way from earning the species name 'sapiens,' there's no question that we've earned the name 'scientia,' and now we have to live with it.
To my mind, one of the most interesting unsolved problems today is: just how do we insure that science is "properly applied by honorable folk of modest demeanor?" I got nuthin'. You?