What is a ‘Scientist’?

Bishop Hill has an audio clip of Professor Steve Jones talking about impartiality in science:

SJ: BBC news is driven by the notion of impartiality. And I think that’s very, very important. It tries to give both sides of the argument. If they have a Tory hyena, they have to have a Labour hyena to match. I think that’s just fine, but actually the difficulty is if you apply that to science it doesn’t always work. If you interview somebody – a top mathematician – who’s just proved that two and two is four, BBC’s tendency is then to turn a spokeperson for the duodecimal liberation front who believes that two and two is five. And that drives many scientists round the bend. It particularly drives them round the bend on things like climate change. Now it is the case that within science there is a general consensus that the climate is changing. But again repeatedly you have a rather tongue-tied scientist explaining the latest piece of data, and then you have a person – who’s not a scientist – who is making confident statements in opposition, and they’re given equal weight. And that’s what I refer to as “false balance”.

X: You can’t just have the scientist saying this is the data, this is… I know best. You can’t have 99 scientists saying that the climate is changing and one saying it isn’t in the studio. But is it right not to have a voice on the other side at all?

SJ: I think it’s actually very advantageous to have the one scientist against the 99. Pick one of the 99 and the lone maverick, and talk about the science. But having somebody who has a political and social agenda is not the same.

As I read it, Steve Jones is saying that only ‘scientists’ should be listened to. He doesn’t mind debates in which one ‘scientist’ is pitted against another ‘scientist’. He doesn’t like it when an inarticulate ‘scientist’ is pitted against an articulate layman, particularly one with some sort of agenda. He seems to see ‘scientists’ as a separate, higher caste.

But who are these ‘scientists’? How does one become a ‘scientist’, and get elevated into the ranks of this august social group?

I suppose that in practice, it’s by passing examinations and getting a degree or a doctorate, and working in a university or research organisation. And in the process you will have learnt most of the existing science, and as a scientific researcher you will be trying to extend the science further. You become a recognised ‘scientist’, and you may well be a member of one or two scientific associations, and subscribe to a few scientific journals. And to top it all, you might also wear a white lab coat with a row of biros in the breast pocket, and a thick pair of spectacles.

I think that’s roughly what most people think of as a ‘scientist’.

But it seems to me that what you actually have here is a social club of people who speak the same language, and share the same understanding of the world, which they call the ‘science’ or the ‘scientific consensus’. And it’s rather difficult for anyone to get into this club. They have to jump through a lot of hoops to get there.

And it also seems to me that this idea of a ‘scientist’ is a fairly recent one. It’s something that is the product of universities and schools that teach ‘science’ of one sort or other, and help students to climb a greasy pole into the scientific community, where they become accredited ‘scientists’ who can wear the badge that says ‘Scientist’ or ‘Top Scientist’ or ‘Top Mathematician’.

But it used not to be like this. Most of the early ‘scientists’ were simply people who were wealthy enough, and leisured enough, to devote their attention to matters that interested them. Nicholas Copernicus was a church Canon, with plenty of leisure time in which to ponder the motions of the planets. Isaac Newton was a professor of  mathematics with an interest in optics and astronomy and alchemy, and he had plenty of leisure time in which to pursue those interests. Charles Darwin was a man of independent means with a deep interest in biology. Albert Einstein was famously an employee at a patent office. And so on. And they corresponded or talked with friends who shared their interests. And they wrote books, very often at the encouragement of their friends (e.g. Newton, Darwin).

And none of them were accredited ‘scientists’ in the modern sense. In fact, most of them would now qualify as being examples of Steve Jones’ articulate laymen – the sort who he thinks shouldn’t be listened to.

They were really simply people who were interested in the world around them in one way or other, and studied it closely, and thought about it deeply.

If they formed a club or society, it was simply one of like-minded people. And anyone could join the club, simply by conducting some sort of study, and writing to people about what they’d found, and attracting their interest in so doing.

There wasn’t a separate caste of ‘scientists’. They were all laymen. The ‘science’ only emerged when their various ideas and discoveries were drawn together in ‘science’ books, and taught in schools and universities, so that students could quickly get up to speed on the latest thoughts of Mr Newton and Mr Darwin and Mr Einstein.

And now that we have two separate castes – of scientists and laymen – the old open model of science has been swept away, and replaced by a closed model in which you can only do science if you have got the right qualifications to wear the Scientist badge.

And it seems to me that this is the death of science. It’s the death of the kind of leisured explorer who just follows his nose wherever it leads him. The new scientist is someone who has been thoroughly educated in what is already known, and speaks a settled language of science. And very often he is not following his own nose, but being required to work within a particular discipline in a particular direction. For instance, he might be a microbiologist who studies E. Coli, and maybe just one part of E. Coli. And it will not be appreciated if he goes and studies some other bacterium. Because he’s not being paid to do that. He’s an employee. Not a gentleman of leisure. He can’t follow his nose anywhere. And because he doesn’t, he seldom finds out anything new. Or only something that is very slightly new.

In fact the new closed model of science is one that encourages stasis and dogmatic thinking. Because now everybody is being taught the same thing, very often from the same textbooks, and so everybody thinks in the same way, the way that is called ‘science’. And once they have all been taught to think in the same way, they are then employed to perform research along highly restricted lines (e.g. about E. Coli and nothing else) within the existing science.

It’s a wonder if any genuine new scientific knowledge at all can ever emerge in such a restrictive environment. And perhaps it doesn’t, even though the scientific community keeps awarding itself Nobel prizes. I’m trying to think of something that’s been new and big and shocking – work of the order of Newton or Einstein, which changed the way people thought – over the past 60 years. And I can’t think of anything that’s completely new. Almost everything seems to be an incremental development of existing science. The nuclear physicists seem to be arguing about the same set of sub-atomic particles that they were 70 years ago. The epidemiologists seem to have no better idea about the nature of cancer than they did 70 years ago. There don’t even seem to be any more of the breakthrough new medicines that appeared 70 years ago (e.g. penicillin). Not even the weapons of mass destruction seem to have moved far beyond where they were 70 years ago. Nor even new methods of transportation to rival the automobiles, planes, and rockets that appeared 60 – 100 years ago, put together with first with wire and string by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Wernher von Braun in his back yard.

Everything is just a slight improvement on what came before. But basically, it’s all the same. Even though we have thousands and thousands of ‘scientists’.

In fact, they’re very often not any improvement at all. By any objective measure, smoking bans which are supposed to improve public health are doing the exact opposite, and inflicting grievous social and economic damage, while not improving anyone’s health the slightest iota.

And Tobacco Control displays all the symptoms of dogmatic, ossified thinking. It is their dogmatic belief that tobacco smoke causes (or contributes to causing) more or less every single malady from lung cancer to heart disease. And all their actions proceed from that single assumption. Nobody in Tobacco Control is allowed to think differently. If they do, they’re kicked out, and branded as stooges of Big Tobacco.

Climate science seems much the same. Global warming (or climate change) is held to be caused by CO2 in the atmosphere. No other hypothesis is permissible. Sceptics are branded as “deniers”, and threatened with prosecution.

The only way out of the impasse is to return to the old open model of science, where those people who are interested in something carry out studies of one sort or other, following their own noses, and discussing their findings with whoever’s interested.

Lay people are going to have to return science to its original form. They’re going to have to follow their own noses wherever they lead, and talk to each other. Just like Isaac Newton and Nicholas Copernicus and Albert Einstein.

In this respect, the co-operative ISIS study of the impact of smoking bans on smokers is an example of such a lay-person’s study. We’re not ‘scientists’. And we’re not doing ‘science’. We are just concerned and interested persons who are asking a few simple questions (I was out asking them today) which Tobacco Control never seems to have thought to ask. We just want to find out what’s going on. And we’ll be talking to each other about it. And maybe out of our discussions some new survey will emerge, with new questions. We probably won’t get published in any journals or newspapers. There won’t be any news about us on television. After all, smokers aren’t allowed on TV.

Ordinary people have all the tools available to them to do their own science. They have truly wonderful things like computers. And they have the vast library of the Internet. And the superfast communication of phones and emails. And many of them lead lives of unemployed leisure. It’s almost perfect. Isaac Newton would have been green with envy at the calculating machine I have at my fingertips.

All they need to do is to shrug off the illusion that only ‘proper’ ‘qualified’ ‘recognised’ ‘scientists’ can do science. Particularly if many of these ‘scientists’ are charlatans.

We are on the brink of a brilliant new age of free enquiry and study. It’ll be like a new Enlightenment. And we’ll solve all the problems the ‘scientists’ can’t solve.

All we have to do is get rid of the ‘scientists’. Or just ignore them, like they – as exemplified by Professor Steve Jones – ignore us.

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11 Responses to What is a ‘Scientist’?

  1. Reinhold says:

    And it seems to me that this is the death of science.

    Well, it’s the rebirth of dogmas after all, the renaissance of inquisition, the beginning of the new Middle Age.
    But it’s not the end of science! Remember, there was science in the Middle Ages, too! They could tell you exactly which birthmark at which point of the skin was clearly and irrevocably a proof for being a witch.

  2. Walt says:

    Great topic. We (by which I mean civilians fighting ETS “science”) get that dismissive “but you’re not a scientist, nyah-nyah” all the time. Doesn’t matter if we’re sitting there citing 70 articles published by 70 gold standard “scientists,” we’re apparently not even qualified to cite them. Because we’re not scientists. And it’s usually some ignoramus city councilman whose IQ is barely above his body temperature who’s passing that judgment, and yet, at the same time, thinks himself fit to evaluate “the science” and pass laws on its basis.

    When you really start to think about it, experts in any subject (even actual, as opposed to the self-appointed kings) start out with merely God-given native intelligence. Therefore, any person with native intelligence can master, if not all, at least most of the same things if he concentrated on them. So everyone with a fairly well-functioning brain is an expert-in-the-making.

    As you also point out, the fallacy of consensus also plagues medicine. Go to any doctor and the chances are pretty high that you’ll get the same prescription because The Book says you get it., whether or not you need it or whether it’s right for you. Little original thinking. It’s increasingly done by rote.

  3. Rose says:

    “Lay people are going to have to return science to its original form.”

    I think what we need is natural scientists with vision. If something doesn’t quite fit,rather than ignore it, pursue it. But that is not made to order science, they have to be free to be diverted by anomalies. If you go off on a wild goose chase, who knows, you may come back with a large and wriggling wild goose that alters all previous perceptions of how things work. It seems to me that’s what the old scientists you mention did.

    We all know that chilling under an apple tree can lead to surprising insights.

    Not in the same league by any means, but sitting on the back steps with a cup of coffee and a cigarette,gazing mindlessly at a rusting candle holder while wondering what happens when nicotine burns , led me to remember that rust is metal slowly burning in air and the key word I was looking for was oxidized.
    I put the coffee down and typed “oxidized” and “nicotine” into google and the internet just opened right up for me, I was through the barrier and exploring new worlds.
    Scientists need time and space to daydream.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      I just want to go anywhere and smoke,day dream,look at beautiful women have a beer right prior to the mass hangings of all the nazi scientists! Then we might get some real science for a change and lets not forget the so called RESEARCHERS these nazis call researchers which are nothing but nurses or some hack shown how to use an air monitoring device!

  4. harleyrider1978 says:

    Scientists use to deal in proven facts……………thats all changed now

    • Rose says:

      But they have to think of them first and then they have to prove it. Again and again against all comers and then they can be reasurred, if it still stands, that it is real.
      Perhaps these days not all scientist are plagued, as they rightly should be, by the terrible question, “What if I am wrong?”

  5. Tomsmith says:

    Frank, this is a good article. I was a scientist for the best part of a decade and you are correct that modern science is very narrow and constrained. It is very difficult to do anything that actually interests you, and the direction of enquiry is mostly mapped out in advance before hand. I think that this is because of where the money comes from. For science to go back to enthusiastic and honest enquiry we would need this funding model to change. It is very difficult to build money in a family these days and for children to live lives of leisure where they explore their own genuine interests because the government takes so much

    • Frank Davis says:

      For a few years I was a university researcher studying heat flow in buildings. I never regarded myself as a ‘scientist’ though, although it was science we were doing.

  6. Rose says:

    Science has to be replicable.

    Here’s an experiment.

    Roll-up smokers, look at your fingers, how many decades have they looked like that?
    That’s what’s supposed to be killing you, see anything worrying, any developments whatsever?
    That’s tobacco smoke condensate deposited where the smoke to skin will be hottest.

    Imagine the short life of a rabbit, if it was allowed to live that long, compare that to the length of time that condensate has been stuck to your fingers, no matter how many times you have removed it.
    Roffo said he produced tumours on the ears of rabbits, but even Doll admitted that nobody could seem to replicate it.

    “Pathologists, meanwhile, continued to argue about the reality of the increase. Some, however, had been sufficiently impressed to try to produce cancer with tobacco tar on the skin of laboratory animals.
    Roffo succeeded in doing so in the Argentine in 1931, using rabbits, but his results were generally dismissed in the UK and the US on the grounds that the tobacco had been burnt at unrealistically high temperatures.
    Experiments in Britain were negative (Leitch, 1928; Passey, 1929) apart from one which produced one cancer in 50 animals and led Cooper et al (1932) to conclude that “tobacco tar is relatively unimportant in the causation of cancers”.

    Would this in anyway accurately represent smoking?

    “The still was filled with a.5 kg. of dry tobacco: the asbestos gasket, soaked in water-glass (liquid sodium silicate), put in place; and the lid fastened tightly so as to prevent the escape of fumes.
    The still was then slowly heated to 700° C. Six to 8 hours were required for a distillation.”

    “Reasoning by analogy from the production of cancer using coal tars….”

    So what did happen to people working with coal tar, when workers were less protected than they are now?

    “The hands of tar workers develop skin cancer, the marked drenchings of the fingers, the skin of the fingers which holds the cigarette, which are sometimes deeply brown stained have never so far as I know, developed cancer of the skin.”

    Which combined with your fingers, would look at best like a protective effect, at worst, no effect at all.

    So come on, prove me wrong with all your smoke damaged fingers, anyone?

    By the way, Lickint’s feeble answer to this obvious refutation of his theory is reported to be -

    “One of the gentlemen, the proponents of the cigarette theory, has tried to explain that phenomenon by saying that the first three fingers of the right hand of man have a natural immunity against cancer.”

  7. Tony says:

    Your post reminded me of something I read, perhaps a year ago, about a new scientific centre that the Government was setting up in Wales. The initial grant was of the order of a million pounds I think. The sole purpose of this centre was to employ scientists to research ways of reducing CO2 emissions. So the global warming ideology was built into the very foundations. No scientist at that centre would dare question whether there was any need to reduce emissions.

  8. Tomsmith says:

    Tony: correct, this is how the direction of research is controlled. Funding is linked to specific pre-determined questions. It is a sort of science, but a very small and limited sort

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