Science has always prided itself on respecting a plurality of views, perhaps because its practitioners have realized how fickle pronouncements of ultimate truth are. At the end of the nineteenth century a few leading physicists declared that fundamental physics was now set in stone and all that was needed was the drive toward more accurate measurements. The world of relativity and quantum theory shattered that fond illusion. Similarly many experts in evolution believed that the genome was unalterable once it was passed on from parents to children. The discovery of epigenetics put a completely different spin on genetic inheritance. The same slaying of longstanding beliefs – Aristotle’s four elements, vitalism, the ether – has pervaded the history of science.
It is thus clear that science has always suffered when its adherents have insisted that there was one truth to be known, shared and cherished. But it – and humanity – have suffered even more when the belief in such a truth came not from the scientific edifice itself from but from a political or social outlook that used that edifice to its own ends. The greatest harm comes not when scientists claim universal truth but when all of us, scientists as well as non-scientists, believe that science should support what we believe are sacred political or social values. More.
Actually, half the people who say they “stand for science” today would lose all interest in it if it didn’t happen to support their pet peeves, grievances, and crotchets.
Note: Curious Wavefunction (aka Ash Jogalekar) hit our screens recently when he got dumped from Scientific American in one of those weird events connected with Nicholas Wade’s book on race and Darwinism.
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