Science and Discourse

Our public discourse about science is terrible and awful. In general, it falls into these two highly exaggerated camps:

Camp #1: "Science is the only route to solving all of our problems and is going to show us enlightenment!"

Camp #2: "Science is rife with institutional bigotry! It is nothing more than a language white men use to make themselves seem smart and logical! Scientists don't understand the humanities and their thinking about oppressive structures!"

Before launching into critiques of these camps and my own ideas about science, there are a couple of points I want to make:

Regardless of how ethical science as a whole may be, it works (well, sort of works, maybe - I will get to this later). The reason we can disseminate and discuss ideas about how science is awesome or problematic is because we have electricity, semiconductor physics, the internet and a whole lot more, which is down to science rather than people commenting on science. Remember that.

I have noticed that the vast majority of people in both camps are not scientists. This is important, because a lot of people who are commenting and whose views are influential are not getting up close and personal with science; they are seeing the shiny front end of science, the lab coats and the Nobel Prizes, without seeing the messy back end where experiments go wrong, coding is a pain in the ass, and theorists scrawl on huge art pads and argue with each other. You cannot understand the front end of science without the back end.

I am in neither camp - but I'm not a scientist either, no matter how much I'd like to be! So why do I get to comment?

The simple answer is: I don't. Evaluate my claims with scepticism.

The slightly more complicated answer is: my degree, volunteering and extra work don't make me a professional scientist, but they do allow me glimpses into the back end of science - the place where the real work is done. I'm not uniquely qualified to talk about science, but I have more understanding of it than someone who hasn't touched maths or the sciences since they turned sixteen. In turn, a professional scientist has far more experience than I do and I'd definitely listen to them over me.

I suppose that in order to praise or critique science with any degree of accuracy or honesty, you have to know what science actually is - and it seems like nobody really does.

I think that's a fair assumption, because science is a mess.

We have ideas of what we'd like to do and how we'd like to be doing it; we'd like to find out how things work and work on problems we find interesting. There's an awful lot of universe out there and nobody can figure it out on their own. We'd like to be able to look at all the evidence and formulate or modify theories based on that.

(Incidentally, scientific training and scientific practice are incredibly time-consuming; science students have many more contact hours than average and spend six to ten years, maybe more even, in higher education just training to be scientists. This is why scientists are not necessarily well-acquainted with, say, feminist theory or queer theory; we probably haven't had the time to devote ourselves to full study. I respect those who do, as it's a lifetime of work, but both groups need to acknowledge the gaps in their expertise before launching into a tirade about how science is inherently awful or how academics in the humanities are lazy.)

In practice, science is chaotic; sometimes research leads us down dead ends. A lot of the time we don't have all the evidence because of paywalls or because experiments can be incredibly frustrating, for example. And science isn't done by enlightened, dispassionate AI but by humans, humans who are bigoted or illogical or who become attached to their pet theories. I don't believe that designing ways of differentiating theories which describe our world and theories which don't is inherently problematic, but I do believe that scientists are human and that humans are prejudiced assholes. I feel that separating the two and acknowledging that yes, scientists do horrible things is vital, but that doesn't mean that science is wrong in the way it describes the world. It just means that we need to be better humans.

I feel like more public acknowledgement of how messy, and yes, how wrong science often is is necessary. A lot of misconceptions come about from the assumption that science is something shiny and clean. Let's acknowledge that science is done by humans - stupid, illogical, cruel, mad, funny, passionate, idealistic and very flawed humans. Science is a human activity to observe and understand the world around us. As such, it will be messy, wrong, and yes, problematic, but also self-correcting. And honestly? Science may not be perfect, but it's the least bad tool we have to understand the world around us and materially improve our lives. Chucking it in the "problematic" bin without so much as a thought of what science has done for us or whether the people involved could change for the better is a disservice to us all.