The institutional arrogance of science
Let me expand on something I wrote in my last post:
There’s something about scientists’ training that makes us believe we’re all qualified to speak for “science.” I would never consider speaking authoritatively on condensed matter physics even though I’ve taken a few classes in the subject. Yet in the past I have waxed eloquently about “science.” And the funny thing is that people (especially non-scientists) take me seriously. But if I’m not qualified to speak about all areas of physics, how on earth am I qualified to speak for science?
It sounds harsh, but I think that arrogance is really the best way to describe this attitude. All scientists somehow assert the right to speak for science even though they are experts in only a single area. Simply put, scientists are arrogant. Those of you who’ve spent time in academia are probably wondering why I waste time stating something so obvious. We’re used to interacting with people with big egos. But I think there’s something a bit different operating here.
Faculty at big research universities are usually the best of the best. They’ve had incredibly successful careers and there’s a degree of arrogance that goes along with it. It’s not much different from people in other fields. But consider anyone who is or has been in a science PhD program. These people are generally not arrogant or overconfident. In most cases, I think they exude humility and restraint. And yet all of us believe that we’re qualified to speak for “science.”
I said this before, but modern science is HUGE. There are millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars involved. On top of that, science has become even more specialized. I didn’t completely understand what all my labmates worked on even though we all studied space physics. The combination of greater size with greater specialization means that your average scientists knows a very, very, very small portion of science. When it was limited to a handful of wealthy, white, Christian males, perhaps “science” and “scientists” were coherent ideas. But I don’t think they still are.
Right now your average scientist knows as much about science as an average athlete knows about sports. Michael Jordan was rarely, if ever, asked to comment about all of sports. Everyone recognized that his skill at basketball didn’t transfer to swimming or track-and-field. I suspect that he knew of his own limitations in this regard. This type of humility doesn’t happen with scientists. My friends and I all believed we knew enough to debate whether “science” was value-free. We were so confident we didn’t bother looking at the evidence! More than anything else, this is what I can’t really wrap my head around. When it comes to speaking about “science”, most scientists are pretty unscientific. I know I’ve been guilty in the past.
Somewhere along the way us scientists have cultivated this false confidence in our knowledge. I know it’s probably a stretch, but I think it might be similar to institutional racism. As I understand the concept, racism can be inflicted even if people are well-meaning. (See Racism without Racists by Bonilla-Silva.*) Society and institutions may be perpetuate racism even if individuals aren’t racist.
Somewhat along those lines, I think that science portrays an arrogance despite humility of individual scientists. It’s not a perfect analogy because I think that the scientists themselves are arrogant. But it’s a highly contextualized arrogance. I wouldn’t call my friends arrogant even though they all arrogantly speak for all of science. Maybe the institution of science engenders arrogance in otherwise humble people? I’m not sure…I’ll have to flesh this idea out some more. Right now I’m pretty sure I’m rambling and making no sense.
*I feel I should say that I haven’t actually read that book. But I thank my friend Sapna for the recommendation.