Is science a polytheistic religion?

“The experimental method is concerned only with the search for objective truths, not with any search for subjective truths…An anticipative idea or an hypothesis is, then, the necessary starting point for all experimental reasoning.  Without it, we could not make any investigation at all nor learn anything; we could only pile up sterile observation.”

    –Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine


Claude Bernard: “Oui, I’m dead…but do I look naive to you?”

The other day, I told Dr. Isis I wanted to do a PubStyleScience on epistemology, and she said, “I don’t get it… what’s so hilarious about that?” Or words to that effect. Imagine my shock and surprise!  A bunch of scientists, sitting around, drinking and arguing about the meaning of everything?  It’s the *perfect* topic for PSS!!  So, let me explain my interest in the topic…

I like to share science and the culture of science with anyone who’s interested, especially to show a relaxed side of science to younger people who may be put off by narrow-minded cultural attitudes. PubStyleScience is a science culture experiment along these lines.  Let’s open the doors and windows of the scientific enterprise!  I see many sci’s on Twitter motivated to expose and correct sexism and racism in the scientific enterprise, to promote fairness and transparency.  We can agree that there is some bullshit cultural baggage with science community, but I’m more interested in the subtle baggage that keeps us from doing the best science.  I am often surprised at how scientists embrace groupthink.  In the abstract, the NIH (for one) declares a love for radical departures and fresh interdisciplinary ideas.  And yet, as a scientists love to run in a herd, and in evaluating others, demand conformity.  Professional science should be open to a diversity of participants.  This is a moral principle, and a conviction that the progress of science will benefit from the participation of a wider range of voices.

So what I’m interested in is the *positive* side of scientific cultural evolution.  My tweeps rail against what they don’t like about the old culture…but what are we *for?*  For most of the scientists I interact with, we can easily agree on the extreme ends of “unacceptable,” e.g.sexim and racism.  But there are softer cultural values that are not clear-cut, but messy.  How should we define the differences between “good culture” and bad?  An example of the changing mores of science is the idea of “Kerning,” a word which was coined several years ago after an earnest but tone-deaf opinion piece by cancer biologist Scott Kern.  

In it, Kern lamented the erosion of a lab culture that valued working through the weekends.  His “where’s the passion?” lamentation was lambasted by Drugmonkey and Dr. Isis.  While I agree with some criticisms of Dr. Kern’s piece, e.g. science should not be closed to people with families that need to work 9-to-5, I sincerely believe that intense, clock-ignoring passion is a critical ingredient for good science.  Can we revisit the passion and hard work debate?

As the culture of science evolves, I want to understand and communicate to the next generation two pillars:  a new, open and diverse culture of science, as well as the essentials of the scientific method.  And here’s the question that I would like to discuss:  are these two pillars utterly distinct, or does diversity in science require being open to different views of the scientific method?  This is where the philosophy comes in:.  How do we separate conjecture from reality?  How can we know what is true?   Science is not set of sciencey facts or topics, it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking, an approach to understanding the universe.  I worship the scientific method, I admit.  But if science is inherently human process, Is Claude Bernard search for objective truths naive?  If the process of science is inherently human activity, one that may not lay claim to objective truth, I start to wonder:  is there a clean line between the method and the culture?

Then, my mind was blown when I stumbled on to the existence of a Feminist Theory of Science.  Being the interweb, I should have known this has been discussed before.  But it’s a radically new idea to me.  And the next obvious question:  if there is a feminist science, is there an Irish theory of science and a jewish theory of science and a South American theory of science?  Does everyone get their own science?  Hmm…not sure, but I don’t think so.  I think there should be a core set of values.  Where do we draw the lines?  This is a question of epistemology.

Is there any real-world relevance to this philosophizing?  I just got back from a new investigator meeting at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where we were deluged with data and information about the byzantine workings of the NIH.  The NIH recognizes that URMs (under-represented minorities) are under-represented among NIH grant awardees, and that this problem is getting worse given the changing demographics of the USA.  The NCI is working to try and fix this problem , but as I was being intensely immersed in the bizarre culture of US science funding at the NIH, I couldn’t help but wonder if our narrow view of “proper” science culture is part of the problem.   The NIH also seems to have mixed feelings about “big science.”  Big versus small science deserves it’s own post, but briefly, the NIH pays lip service to the importance of individual investigator grants, and yet, they sacrifice many R01s for big science projects.  Let’s have a whiskey and discuss.


Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science communication superstar

 “This ad­ven­ture is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Cosmos

14 thoughts on “Is science a polytheistic religion?

  1. This is a really interesting post. And timely. I think one thing that a particular recent twitter storm has highlighted is that there are different ways of doing science. The question is, which do we accept as science, and which not. And, I guess, is this definition static? (History of Science shows it isn’t).

    • Thanks, man! Yes, my interactions on Twitter really make me think and challenge my assumptions…but like you say, this gets to the core of what ways we “accept as science, and which not.” I thought I was being rigorous…am I being closed minded? I’m not ready to stop demanding hypotheses.

  2. Really interesting read! It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while, though for different reasons: I once heard someone say that science means having faith, because you need to believe published data. You can’t repeat every single experiment you read about (just think LHC or ENCODE), so you have no other choice. I think there is/was a lot of truth in that statement and I do consider the body of peer-reviewed scientific literature as a universal foundation and core value of science. But with the shocking number of retractions and data that cannot be reproduced, I’m wondering if this is changing? And I’m not quite sure what/if there is to replace it.

  3. Pingback: Pub-Style Science: Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle? | Adventures in Ethics and Science

  4. On the Kerning issue, I agree that passion is important, but as long as a scientist is productive (I guess that means solid publications), do the hours matter as much? What if you’re a mediocre researcher (by publications) but you’re a great mentor/teacher and one of your students goes on to win a nobel prize in part because you helped them get their career going? Science (and basic research especially) is (unfortunately) a long game…progress is measured in decades, not years. One scientists’ publication is likely wrong at some level, but as a group, we succeed and add to human knowledge.

  5. Pingback: A Brand New #PubScience!! Tonight at 8pm EST!! | Pub-Style Science

  6. Pingback: Fuck “Passion” | meinhermitage

  7. Pingback: SKY & CLOUD » What is philosophy of science (and should scientists care)?

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