Can Science Get Any Respect?

This has been an up-and-down year for the public image of science. Those smart-ass humanist critics of science got their comeuppance when Social Text, one of their trendy journals, published an article by Alan Sokal, a physicist at the City University of New York, that turned out to be a parody of their incomprehensible critiques of science. When Sokal wrote about his experience in the journal Lingua Franca, the New York Times picked up the story. Congressman John Dingell and his insufferable fraud police got theirs when David Baltimore and Thereza Imanishi-Kari were cleared of any scientific wrongdoing.

On the other hand, Congress was making it clear that constantly increasing federal support for research was not a birthright and that significant reductions loomed on the horizon. But the cruelest blow came when John Horgan, a writer for Scientific American, published a book with the provocative title The End of Science, which argued that all the big discoveries have already been made and that the leading lights of science are really engaged in nonempirical flights of imagination that are little better than philosophy. The book was widely, and quite favorably, reviewed, and Horgan was prominent on the talk-show circuit. Can’t science get any respect? Are these congressional budget battles and popular critiques of science (not to mention the spread of quack science among a scientifically illiterate populace) the early stages of the decline of science?

The attack of cultural studies

The Sokal article comes after much hand-wringing in the scientific community about attacks from intellectuals who question the objectivity of science and even its ability to learn anything about what is true. These deconstructionists, poststructuralists, postmodernists, and other prefix-ridden thinkers take a radically skeptical view of any human attempts to get at the truth. For many of them, everything is subjective and is a product of social conditioning. Science’s presumption that it can actually arrive at some objective truths does not sit well with them. But the meaning of the Sokal affair does not lie in the strength of their analysis. Questions about what is knowable are worth asking, and we need to better understand how social forces outside of science influence its practice.

What is appalling about the publication of Sokal’s article is that the editors were willing to publish something that they obviously could not understand. They can be forgiven for not knowing that much of the science in the article was wrong, though they should have wondered at the assertion that pi is not a constant. But they should have recognized that Sokal’s argument didn’t even attempt to make sense.

Readers may be relieved to know that the editors of Social Text have not been chastened by this experience. They wish that they had not published the article, but they bristle at the suggestion that “something is rotten in the state of cultural studies.” Instead, they see the incident as indicative of a problem with science: “Its [Sokal’s article] status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document. Indeed, Sokal’s conduct has quickly becomes an object of study, for those who analyze the behavior of scientists.” Symptomatic document! Get real. You got caught with your pants down. Pull them up before you start yammering again.

Baltimore’s travels

The Baltimore affair also has a complicated lesson. It is more about John Dingell’s high-handedness than it is about Congress. It is also less about the the integrity of science than about the rise of self-righteous scolds. The scientific misconduct vigilantes who worked with Dingell began to resemble the zealots of animal rights, antiabortion, antipornography, and environmental campaigns, who lose all perspective in their efforts to point out the moral shortcomings of others.

What was curious from the beginning-and what scientists should have found flattering-was the incredibly high standard of integrity that society assumes is being followed in science. Can one even imagine a public furor over revelations that a member of another professional group-lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers, or journalists-had played loose with the evidence in order to strengthen an argument. We all must be aware that scientists are human beings and as capable as anyone else of deceit. There is no denying the record of scientific misconduct, but society obviously holds science in very high regard to become so upset about a few transgressions. And the paucity of cases of scientific misconduct that have emerged during the past decade of intense scrutiny suggests that something is right in the state of science. Still, as David Baltimore observed in Issues (“Baltimore’s Travels,” Summer 1989), one reason why he wound up in front of Dingell’s committee was that scientists had not taken active responsibility for protecting the integrity of science.

The end of science?

But what about this arrogant Horgan? Where does he get off claiming that the emperor has no clothes? Besides, he makes some very well-known scientists sound like pompous asses. Couldn’t a popular book such as this undermine public confidence in science and convince Congress to stop funding basic research? In a word, no. All of the members of Congress who read this book could fit in George Brown’s car-and he still might not be able to drive in the HOV lane. But science would actually be better off if they did read it, because readers are likely to come away with an increased appreciation of science.

Horgan provides a lively tour of the major questions in particle physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, chaos/complexity theory, and several other fields. He takes some cheap shots at individuals, but he also makes it clear that scientists have emotions and personalities as well as intellects. Like it or not, that helps make science interesting to nonscientists.

The bottom line is that Horgan’s book is not a threat to science. It will not change the world’s point of view. Horgan has chosen to propose a provocative thesis, which will help sell the book. He raises the valid issue of the difficulty of finding empirical support for superstring theory or definitive evidence about the origin of the universe, but the argument is far from convincing in other fields, particularly the life sciences. Besides, is the average American more likely to have heard of John Horgan or the possibility of life on Mars and the discovery of a third major form of life? Most readers of this book will come away better informed and more interested in the possibility of life in other parts of the galaxy, the nature of consciousness, and the mystery of how DNA guides the development of an organism. Score one more victory for science.

Why so touchy?

Scientists have curiously brittle egos, considering the vigor of the profession and the respect in which it is held. The scientific community invited John Dingell’s interest by failing to acknowledge the possibility of misconduct when it was first raised as a concern. Instead of circling the wagons, scientists could have simply accepted their own humanity and taken forceful steps to protect against human frailty. Scientists are taking steps now to police themselves, and the Dingells, Stewarts, and Feders are fading into the background.

Many scientists have also overreacted to the cultural criticism of science. We shouldn’t assume that all criticism is destructive. If scientists listen, accept constructive criticism, and engage in more rigorous self-criticism, they won’t feel so beleaguered. Besides, it is often an overdefensive reaction to criticism or questioning that makes an issue news. Just ask Hillary Clinton. If scientists willingly join the cultural debate about science, science can grow in stature.

The response to Horgan is simple. Do good science and make the extra effort to explain it to someone other than colleagues. Among the major professions, scientists rank second only to physicians in public esteem. Journalists and politicians trail far behind. One reason is that deeds speak louder than words. Scientists should participate in discussions of science with the confidence that the public trusts them. But the reason that they are trusted is that their deeds produce results that people can see and appreciate.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Can Science Get Any Respect?” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 1 (Fall 1996).

Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall 1996