by Peter Franklin
Friday, 30
April 2021

Don’t place science on a pedestal

It is a human activity that is subject to human frailties
by Peter Franklin
Let the cranks speak. Credit: Getty

When I read Tom Chivers’ post about Young Earth creationism I groaned inwardly. Not because I objected to what he’d written — it’s very good — but because it contained the news that the likely next leader of the DUP is a creationist.

Great, I thought, that’s all we need. If this man is elected then the self-appointed science vigilantes are going to go ape. 

Science vigilantism overlaps with the ‘fake news’ panic. It imagines that the citadel of reason is under attack on all sides by the reactionary forces of darkness. More recently this siege mentality has been extended to envelop the ‘expert class’ in general.

This Manichaean worldview of a society divided between rationality and irrationality is, of course, an aspect of the culture war as imported from the US. However, it’s America that shows that while the world is full of people who believe peculiar things, this needn’t stop scientists from getting on with their work. In no other western country does Christian fundamentalism have a greater influence, and yet no other country scoops more Nobel prizes. I’m not suggesting that these two facts are causally related — just that the former does not prevent the latter.

Of course, if we can tolerate the presence of Young Earth creationists or alternative medicine advocates in the public square, then we should we also tolerate the science vigilantes? If the very mention of homeopathy makes someone hop up-and-down with undiluted rage then can’t we put up with their eccentricity too?

Yes, of course, we should. 

But where there is cause for concern is when science vigilantism has a chilling effect on necessary debate — for instance, when social media companies censor content that conflicts with the official scientific position (however defined). 

The danger here is that mistakes made by the scientific establishment can have much more damaging consequences than crankery does. Covid policy is case in point.

Examples include the delaying of UK lockdown on official scientific advice; or the failure to close borders early enough; or the World Health Organisation’s early advice on masks; or the various failures of epidemiological modelling; or errors made in the treatment of Covid patients; or the misapplication of the precautionary principle in relation to vaccine risks. 

The list goes on and on — indeed the very origin of the pandemic may lie in a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong.

There’s no simple explanation for the fallibility of scientists and scientific bodies. In some cases we can point the finger at bureaucratic arrogance; in others, political interference is to blame; and then there’s the basic fact that our scientific understanding of any novel pathogen is inevitably a work in progress.

But whatever the explanation, it’s vital that we don’t place science on a pedestal. It is after all a human activity and thus subject to human frailties.

Putting the scientific establishment beyond challenge is too high a price for silencing the cranks.

Join the discussion

  • I disagree with most of this article. I especially disagree with this bit
    << for instance, when social media companies censor content that conflicts with the official scientific position (however defined). >>
    I may be wrong but where I have seen that happen is where the conflict is with “the scientific consensus”. This may of may not be real science but more frequently is dogma where a number of people have been bullied into supporting it and then the cause is taken up by the media.

  • Scientism is generally an outlook held by the second rate scientists. The serious guys aren’t bothered by what other people believe. Perhaps a good way of looking at this would be to revive a word from the vocabulary of the medieval Catholic “Schoolmen” philosophers — “universal”. A universal (noun) was any thing which has no existence except as an aspect of another thing. The classic example is colour. Many things are red, but you cannot go into a shop and buy a pound of red because it does not exist except in things that ARE red.
    Science is a universal. It does not exist except in people who practice science and as such, it is subject to the flaws of those people. “Science” doesn’t tell you anything, scientists do. There is no demi-god called science striding the earth and making completely objective and dispassionate discoveries. That is a myth as pernicious as any the followers of scientism accuse religious believers of peddling.

  • Oh Prashant Kotak, I rather hope you are marched off to the Tower: the subsequent outrage would lead to lots more people reading your excellent post than if it just stays quietly in the comments section of UnHerd.

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