In a review of several recent science books, Dartmouth professor Alan Hirshfeld offers us a view of the Royal Society (former employer of sinner in the hands of an angry god, Michael Reiss), and similar societies, as engines of perpetual revolution (The Wall Street Journal), opining “The Royal Society's history of open-minded debate epitomizes science as a self-correcting process”:
The group is more effective than the individual at sussing out weak hypotheses, flawed experiments or biased observations, and one of the vital contributions of Europe’s “natural philosophers” during the Enlightenment was the creation of societies to disseminate and evaluate their ideas. Such conclaves served as intellectual hubs before the rise of modern research universities and institutes, and remain important today.
That was then. And, as mathematician David Berlinski says, now it is now.
A statement like that, applied to current science, has the flavour of the after-dinner speech you wash down with fresh, hot coffee from the tanker.
The current science we skewer so often here is not the product of great minds but of lecture room mediocrities and tax-hungry lobbies. Never mind “weak hypotheses, flawed experiments or biased observations”, it’s hard to get past the tide of scandals in this atmosphere.
If “science is self-correcting” means only that heads roll in the wake of a really big one, then science doesn’t differ appreciably from politics, religion, finance, or the military. The real difference is the inappropriate authority granted to science by the public today, given the circumstances.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.