Science Lessons from an Old Coin
A DISCUSSION OFWhat a Coin From 1792 Reveals About America’s Scientific Enterprise
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In “What a Coin From 1792 Reveals About America’s Scientific Enterprise” (Issues, Fall 2023), Michael M. Crow, Nicole K. Mayberry, and Derrick M. Anderson make an adroit analogy between the origins of the Birch Cent and the two sides of the nation’s research endeavors, namely democracy and science. The noise and seeming dysfunction in the way science is adjudicated and revealed is, they say, a feature and not a bug.
I agree. I have written extensively about how scientists should embrace their humanity. That means we express emotions when we are ignored by policymakers, we have strong convictions and therefore are subject to motivated reasoning, and we make both intentional and inadvertent errors. Efforts to curb this humanity have all failed. We are not going to silence those who are passionate about science—nor should we. Why would someone study climate change unless they are passionate about the fact that it’s an existential crisis? We want and need that passion to drive effort and creativity. Does this make scientists outspoken and subject to—at least initially—looking for evidence that supports their passion? Of course. And does that same humanity mean that errors can appear in scientific papers that were missed by the authors, editors, and reviewers? Also yes.
There’s a solution to this that also embraces the messy and glorious vision presented by Crow et al. And that is not to quell scientists’ passion and humanity, but rather to better explain and demonstrate that science operates within a system that ultimately corrects for human frailty. This requires better explaining the fact that scientists are competitive—another human trait—and that leads to arguments about data and papers that converge on the right answer, even when motivated reasoning may have been there to start with. It also requires courageous and forthright correction of the scientific record when errors have been made for any reason. Science is seriously falling short on this right now. The correction and retraction of scientific papers has become far too contentious—often publicly—and stigma is associated with these actions. This stigma arises from the perception that all errors are due to deliberate misconduct, even when journals are explicit that correction of the record does not imply fraud.
This must change. The public must experience—and perceive—that science is honorably self-correcting. That will require hard changes in scientists’ attitude and execution when concerns are raised about published papers. But fixing this is going to be a lot easier than lowering the noise level. And as the authors point out, that noise is a feature, not a bug, and therefore should be celebrated.
H. Holden Thorp
Editor-in-Chief of Science
Professor of Chemistry and Medicine
George Washington University
In their engaging article, Michael M. Crow, Nicole K. Mayberry, and Derrick M. Anderson rightly point to the centrality of science in US history—and to how much “centrality” has meant entanglement in controversy, not clarity of purpose.
The motto on the Birch Cent, “Liberty, Parent of Science and Industry,” brings out the importance of freedom of inquiry. This is not readily separable from freedom of interpretation and even freedom to disregard. The authors quote the slogan “follow the science” that attempts to counter the recent waves of distrust and denial. But while science may inform policy, it doesn’t dictate it. Liberty signals also the importance of political debate over whether and how to follow science.
In 1792, science was largely a small-scale craft enterprise. Over time, universities, corporations, government agencies, and markets all became crucial. A science and technology system developed, greatly increasing support for science but also shaping which possible advances in knowledge were pursued. Potential usefulness was privileged, as were certain sectors, such as defense and health, and potential for profit. Different levels of risk and “disutility” were tolerated. The patent system developed not only to share useful knowledge but, as Crow and his coauthors emphasize, to secure private property rights. All this complicated and limited the liberty of scientific inquiry.
Comparing the United States to the United Kingdom, the authors sensibly emphasize the contrast of egalitarian to aristocratic norms. But the United States was not purely egalitarian. The Constitution is full of protections for inequality and protections from too much equality. Conversely, UK science was not all aristocratic nor entirely top-down and managed. Though the Royal Society secured formal recognition under King Charles II, it was created in the midst of (and influenced by) the English Civil War. Bottom-up self-organization among scientists was important. Most were elite, but not all statist. And the same went for a range of other self-organized groups, such as Birmingham’s Lunar Men, who shared a common interest in experiment and invention. These groups joined in creating “invisible colleges” that contributed to state power but were not controlled by it. Even more basically, perhaps, the authors’ contrast of egalitarian to aristocratic norms implies a contrast of common men to elites that obscures the rising industrial middle class. It was no accident the Lunar Men were in the English Midlands.
Crow and his coauthors correctly stress that neither scientific knowledge nor technological innovation has simply progressed along a linear path. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, science and technology developed in a dialectical relationship between centralization and decentralization, large-scale and small, elite domination and democratic opportunities. Universities, scientific societies, and indeed business corporations all cut both ways. They were upscaling and centralizing compared with autonomous, local craft workshops. They worked partly for honor and partly for profit. But they also formed intermediate associations in relation to the state and brought dynamism to local communities and regions. Universities joined science productively to critical and humanistic inquiry. Liberty remained the parent of science and industry because institutional supports remained diverse, allowing for creativity, debate, and exploration of different possible futures. There are lessons here for today.
University Professor of Social Sciences
Arizona State University