Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Scientist's Manifesto?

I was disheartened today to read so many glowing reviews of Robert Winston's "Scientist's Manifesto".

I think of science as a way to search for knowledge. It involves forming explanations, making predictions based on those explanations, and then testing whether those predictions hold true. Scientists make claims, and they fight for those claims using objective evidence from repeatable experiments.

Winston promotes an alternative view of science, that scientists are people who are in a special inner circle. They've gone to the right schools, they've gone through the right processes, and they've had review by the right senior scientists. Essentially, they are priests of a Church of Science. His concern is then with the way in which members of this church communicate with the outside.

If that sounds overblown, take a look at item one in the 14-item manifesto. It even uses the term "layperson":
We should try to communicate our work as effectively as possible, because ultimately it is done on behalf of society and because its adverse consequences may affect members of the society in which we all live. We need to strive for clarity not only when we make statements or publish work for scientific colleagues, but also in making our work intelligible to the average layperson. We may also reflect that learning to communicate more effectively may improve the quality of the science we do and make it more relevant to the problems we are attempting to solve.

Aside from the general thrust of it, many individual items I disagree with. For example, I think of scientists interested in a topic as conferring with each other through relatively specialized channels. Thus item three is odd to me:
The media, whether written, broadcast or web-based, play a key role in how the public learn about science. We need to share our work more effectively by being as clear, honest and intelligible s possible in our dealings with journalists. We also need to recognize that misusing the media by exaggerating the potential of what we are studying, or belittling the work of other scientists working in the field, can be detrimental to science.

Of course, it makes perfect sense if you think of science as received wisdom that is then propagated to the masses.

I also think of science as seeking objective truth. I can't really agree the claim that it is relative:
We should reflect that science is not simply ‘the truth’ but merely a version of it. A scientific experiment may well ‘prove’ something, but a ‘proof’ may change with the passage of time as we gain better understanding.

I don't even think peer review is particularly scientific. The main purpose of peer review is to give a mechanism to measure the performance of academics. In some sense it measures how much other academics like you. Yet, item 8 in the manifesto claims that peer review is some sacred process that turns ordinary words into something special, much like the process behind a Fatwah:
Scientists are regularly called upon to assess the work of other scientists or review their reports before publication. While such peer review is usually the best process for assessing the quality of scientific work, it can be abused....

I have an alternative suggestion to people who want the public to treat scientists with esteem. Stop thinking of yourself as a priest, evangelist, or lobbyist trying to propagate your ideas. Instead, remember what it is that's special about your scientific endeavors. Explain your evidence, and invite listeners to repeat crucial parts of the experiment themselves. Don't just tell people you are a scientist. Show them.

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