The trouble with ‘science’

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Scientist filling test tubes in lab
Test tubes? Check. Pipette? Check. Safety glasses? Check. White coat? Check. Random coloured liquid? Check. Photograph: Alamy
I find that I am nearly always on my guard when I come across the words “science” and “scientist” in a sentence. OK, maybe not nearly always; after all, I call myself a historian of science, I write this post in the science section of the Guardian’s website and am forever using the words myself. Nevertheless …

“Scientists say …” is a phrase that hides far more than it explains. Which scientists, working in what field, where and why? Geologists are unlikely to be saying much, for example, about cancer, although if they are we should probably assess their comments differently from those emanating from a medical research lab. One group of chemists/astronomers/climate scientists may say something very different to another. Scientists can be academics, working in industry or for government departments, military or civilian. They can be pursuing original research or making use of routine techniques.

“Scientists say” is little more use, in fact, than “they say”. It just sounds more authoritative. Strangely, though, while use of the term is usually unhelpfully vague, the iconography of science and scientists is very often too specific. Thus test tubes and white coats have become the overriding symbol for people and activities that may have nothing whatsoever to do with these objects.

The words also start my historical sensibilities twitching, on the alert for anachronism. “Scientist” is a particular problem, being a word of fairly recent invention. While it was coined in the 1830s, by William Whewell, it was barely used at all until the end of the century, as this Google Ngram indicates.

Using “scientist” when discussing a period when the word was not used can be seriously misleading. We risk loading an individual’s views, status, ambitions and work with associations and ideas that would have meant nothing to them. The word allows us to forget to enquire whether they did something else to make their living, or were personally wealthy, and that science was not a career or vocation. Not only did the word not exist but there was no equivalent and no such idea.

Of course “science” is equally problematic. The root, “scientia” is simply knowledge or understanding, and what we now think of as science was, until the 19th century, natural philosophy and a range of more specific and practical fields: astronomy, mathematics, chymistry, physick and so on. Its meaning is historically unstable, and what counts as scientific in one period is not the same as what counts in another.

All this naturally makes it somewhat dubious that we should call a discipline that includes research on the pre-modern period history of science. It is shorthand, of course, but not for “the study of everything that looks like science to us today” or “the study of everything that we can trace as having led to today’s science”, but something more like “the study of humanity’s ideas about and interaction with the natural world”. Our definition carefully avoids connotations of the professional contexts that are surely ubiquitous in the word’s meaning today.

This leads me to another common misuse of “science”, which is as a synonym simply for “nature”. An example, as my fellow H-Worder, Vanessa, pointed out on Twitter the other day, is the Facebook page I fucking love science, which often seems to confuse the two. Our knowledge about nature is certainly mediated by science, but the two are not the same thing – nature gets on just fine without anyone watching, and our ideas about it have changed over the course of history, and will change in the future.

If it’s not “Yay science!” being written on a picture of a wild animal, it’s “science” being celebrated for our mobile phones, or blamed for not having given us rocket packs. These things are, of course, technology, which, historical research suggests, is more likely to be a driver for than any kind of simple or direct outcome of science. If you really want a particular gadget what you need is goal-oriented R&D, not “science”.

Maybe these expanded definitions reflect a similar shorthand to the one I described for “history of science” above, or maybe they simply show that the word “science” continues to have fluctuating boundaries. But it is worth being clear what we’re talking about when “science” is used to create authority, leverage funding, concentrate concerns or promise solutions. So, while I don’t want to ban its use, let’s think what we really mean.

Science, the public and the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog. This post relates to the Twitter spat that took place between various scientists, science advocates, historians, philosophers, communicators at the end of last year. For some context and links to other related posts, see Peter Brok’s post, notes and comments.

Icebergs and Ice Bits Near Kangilerngata Sermia Glacier, Disko Bugt (Disko Bay), West Greenland

Some Twitter-types may have noticed that the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince on science, evidence and policy provoked some discussion and debate between the authors and various people loosely within the fields of History and Philosophy of Science and Science and Technology Studies.

One interesting post on the piece has been written by Jack Stilgoe here in the Guardian. Let me say straight up that, like Stilgoe, there was plenty I agree with in the piece. Particularly the meat of their article, in paragraphs 4 to 7, including the clear acknowledgement that science is work-in-progress and that it cannot be the only thing that policy-makers take into account.

Likewise, most of those engaged in the Twitter discussion would have been in complete agreement that science is an excellent way of producing evidence vital for informed policy and that the scientific evidence on climate change is clear.

So why the fuss? It was an opinion piece that discussed the nature of science and the role of science in society. These are areas that people in HPS and STS have devoted their careers to researching. The view of science that was presented here does not chime with the current consensus within these disciplines, and that naturally provoked a reaction – just as scientists are provoked to react by those who reject or ignore their research.

Both sides of this discussion have more in common than not, and the criticism was made in good faith and with a genuine belief that science, science communication and the use of scientific evidence in government policy, would benefit. We aim to aid, not to jeopardise understanding of scientific evidence, by following the evidence uncovered by our disciplines (and, yes, there are other kinds of evidence than scientific).

Broadly, my objections fall into two categories:

1. The piece suggests that science is separated from the “moral, geopolitical and economic components”, even if they rightly acknowledge that it must be part of policy-making

2. Some large and a-historical claims are made regarding changing attitudes to science and technology

On the first, I agree with what Stilgoe has written: “Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics”, for scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.

While there are lots of good phrases about this in the piece, it remains the case that we have scientific evidence on one side of the equation and everything else on the other. It is right to say that scientific evidence “should not be seen or presented … as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged”, and yet it and “the scientific method” are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion”, and they explicitly see a border between science and politics, even if it is portrayed as an unclear one.

The second issue arises in the article’s framing, especially the big opening: “The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method”. This was bound to get the historical and philosophical radar twitching, even if it seems peripheral to the focus of the piece.

“[U]nparalleled human advances” is questionable, for almost any other 100-year period can give a similar sense. In the West in recent centuries, science and technology have certainly played a huge part in those changes, but claiming that the kind of technological innovations Ince and Cox are referring to are due to “the scientific method” is something most scholarship in the history and philosophy of science rejects. Firstly, there are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological. Secondly, new technology tends to lead to new scientific research, rather than vice versa.

This is fairly trivial in the context, however galling to those who carry out research that demonstrates these points. However, more problematic is the fact that the piece goes on to claim that our cushy life and unquestioning consumption of incomprehensible technology is leading us to be less impressed by and accepting of such novelties. Apparently we are devolving:

The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

In fact, historical research suggests that levels of “believing complete drivel”, like those of greeting innovations with “excitement and awe” or boredom or suspicion have not changed a great deal. There is no evidence that “humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease”, and I have yet to find anyone arguing that “we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature” or that “scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary”.

It is untrue and unhelpful to claim that those who question or ignore certain scientific findings are opposed to science in general. Such statements set up unnecessary dualisms and a “you’re either with us or against us” feeling. Frankly, if people only accept part of the package, better that than none. We need to avoid situations where people, who for whatever cultural, religious or personal reasons are unconvinced by scientific arguments in one area, find themselves forced into taking sides in a science/anti-science dichotomy.

How are we to proceed? We should simply accept that “It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so”. But the trouble is that people do challenge, and being told that they can’t isn’t likely to stop them. There is no call here to improve communication with those who have doubts about the message. In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us”.

Finally, I do think that scientists are better at science than me, and that successful science communicators are better at communicating science (to a large audience, if not to all audiences). I also think that when scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.

History of science: spoiling everybody’s party

As regular readers will know, one of my abiding interests is the relationship between academic history of science and popular history of science or, more specifically, how to make historiographically-informed books into readable texts. It’s an issue that has been around for some time, prompting comments by David Miller on the ‘Sobel Effect’ back in 2002 (when he told “The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World”).Read More »

What are science museums for?

There has of late been a lot of attention focused on one small corner of the Science Museum of London. Not, sadly, the Science in the 18th Century Gallery I mentioned in a previous post but an exhibit within the galleries on modern medicine and history of medicine, called ‘Living Traditions’. Because this takes an anthropological perspective of practices such as homeopathy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, various individuals have raised a blogging firestorm, suggesting that the Museum is insufficiently critical of the patients’ and practitioners’ testimonies that it presents. It all started on Purely a figment of your imagination, received this reply from the Museum and was further stoked on DC’s Improbable Science, on Pharyngula and with a guest post on The Lay Scientist at the Guardian.

I don’t want to discuss this particular exhibit, mainly because I haven’t seen it*. I also want to avoid comments focusing on this one example rather than the general principle. So, please don’t tell me (again) why you think there are problems with ‘Living Traditions’ in particular. Please also note, I am supportive of the right kind of campaign against homeopathy, just as I support the right kind of arguments against astrology.

Rather, I want to focus on some of the comments that have arisen from these posts regarding the nature of the Science Museum in particular and science museums in general.Read More »

Hands-on science

Visitors to the Science Museum are often either delighted or slightly bemused by the contrasts provided by its exhibits. The oldest gallery, containing delightfully old-fashioned dioramas of agricultural machinery at work, faces one of the newer, on plastics. Both the topics and their method of display are entirely different, and entirely of their time.

Another striking juxtaposition is provided by the positioning of the noisy, and packed, hands-on Launch Pad, aimed at 8-14-year-olds, next to the sedate, and usually completely empty, display of the Science in the 18th Century. It had always seemed odd, and rather unjust to the beautiful 18th-century instruments, that the gallery entrance should be placed on a landing through which parents are quickly dragged by their impatient children to the more enticing activity beyond, and where child-free adults almost fear to tread. On my last visit, however, I finally got it. Read More »

Astrology (again) and skepticism

I have another post on the topic of “Astrology is rubbish, but…” thas has just appeared as a guest post on Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist. Very many thanks to Martin for agreeing to host, and offering his readers a different view to the one he put across a few says ago in “Astrologers angered by stars”. Comments are kicking off nicely – with some people evidently actually understanding what I was trying to say. Others not. Oh well – we try.

I had another thought – a pensée d’escalier – last night about the meaning of skepticism (though not, for the philosophers here, in the technical sense). It sometimes becomes confusing in such debates as to where skepticism sits and what it means. Being skeptical of astrology is good, being skeptical about climate change is bad. But let us remind ourselves that the etymology of skepticism implies enquiry and reflection, not dismissiveness. This may help sort out the real skeptics from the rubbishers!