The Myth of the Noble Scientist

Discussion in 'Ethics, Morality, & Justice' started by Magical Realist, Apr 13, 2016.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    I doubt that scientists are any more virtuous than anyone else. The ones who don't take science as some value system are probably egocentric careerists only in it for the money anyway. The ones who DO take science to be some grand enterprise are otoh snotty elitists who look down on humanity as ignorant and in desperate need of their guidance. Such is the cost of making out of your values some absolute program for world betterment. A totalitarian utopia where all are educated in the "truth" and all dissent has been crushed forever.
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    "There is deeply ingrained in American culture — particularly nowadays on the Left — the stereotype of the scientist as pure in intent and action, caring only for the Truth, let the chips fall where they may. The scientist works readily with other scientists (except when s/he is working alone, late into the night, thinking deep thoughts), accepts — nay, encourages — challenges to her/his theories and findings, welcomes new information and hypotheses, and is always willing to change his/her mind based on better data, models, and/or reasoning.

    It is, to quote the late Douglas Adams, a load of dingos’ kidneys. A very large, steaming, rotting load of dingos’ kidneys.

    Anyone who has studied the history of science (as I have) — and/or who has worked with actual scientists (as I have) — knows the truth of it: scientists are just as susceptible to human foibles as the rest of us — perhaps more so for most of them, because of the perennial insecurity of their positions and reputations. Science is every bit as much a human activity as politics, religion, and business, and just as subject to the same deadly sins: pride, envy, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, and sloth. In fact, it was while working with and for scientists myself, at the Lunar & Planetary Institute over thirty years ago, that I first heard the now-common saying (and saw it in action first-hand): Why are the politics so vicious in academia? Because the stakes are so small. I find it amusing (and hypocritical) that the Left is quick to point to targets such as “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma”, and “Monsanto” when research appears that they don’t like, yet they ignore the fact that far more research funding comes from private (and usually left-leaning) foundations with their own agenda, from universities which are (as no one can reasonably dispute) very left-leaning, and from the US Federal Government, which is likewise (in the unelected portion of the Executive Branch) openly left-wing.

    All this was brought to my mind today by the following e-mail, sent by a fourth-year PhD candidate at a Swiss technical institute (EPFL) who is abandoning his pursuit of a degree for exactly these reasons. You need to read the whole thing — it’s a pretty damning indictment, yet exactly in line with my own observations and experiences with the scientific community. Here are a few selected quotes:

    • I’m starting to think of [scientific research] as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers.
    • Very quickly after your initiation in the academic world, you learn that being “too honest” about your work is a bad thing and that stating your research’s shortcomings “too openly” is a big faux pas. Instead, you are taught to “sell” your work, to worry about your “image”, and to be strategic in your vocabulary and where you use it. Preference is given to good presentation over good content – a priority that, though understandable at times, has now gone overboard. The “evil” kind of networking … seems to be openly encouraged. With so many business-esque things to worry about, it’s actually surprising that *any* scientific research still gets done these days. Or perhaps not, since it’s precisely the naïve PhDs, still new to the ropes, who do almost all of it.
    • I sometimes find it both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship).
    • Clearly, [a PhD candidate] simply telling the advisor that the research is not promising/original does not work – the advisor has already invested too much of his time, reputation, and career into the topic and will not be convinced by someone half his age that he’s made a mistake. If the student insists, he/she will be labeled as “stubborn” and, if the insisting is too strong, may not be able to obtain the PhD.
    • Indeed, writing lots of papers of questionable value about a given popular topic seems to be a very good way to advance your academic career these days. The advantages are clear: there is no need to convince anyone that the topic is pertinent and you are very likely to be cited more since more people are likely to work on similar things.
    • Unfortunately, not only does this lead to quantity over quality, but many researchers, having grown dependent on the bandwagon, then need to find ways to keep it alive even when the field begins to stagnate. The results are usually disastrous. Either the researchers begin to think up of creative but completely absurd extensions of their methods to applications for which they are not appropriate, or they attempt to suppress other researchers who propose more original alternatives (usually, they do both). This, in turn, discourages new researchers from pursuing original alternatives and encourages them to join the bandwagon, which, though founded on a good idea, has now stagnated and is maintained by nothing but the pure will of the community that has become dependent on it. It becomes a giant, money-wasting mess.
    • Worse yet, there often does not appear to be a strong urge for people in academia to go and apply their result, even when this becomes possible, which most likely stems from the fear of failure – you are morally comfortable researching your method as long as it works in theory, but nothing would hurt more than to try to apply it and to learn that it doesn’t work in reality. No one likes to publish papers which show how their method fails (although, from a scientific perspective, they’re obliged to)."===http://andstillipersist.com/2013/09/the-myth-of-the-noble-objective-scientist/

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    Last edited: Apr 13, 2016
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  3. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

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    These days, it's difficult to picture scientists being in danger of having the level of apotheosis projected upon them that some celebrities and moguls in other activities and practices receive (when / if they're not promoting themselves). But doubtless even champion bass fishermen and master craftswomen may occasionally toot the moral or progressive superiority of their worldview / profession in their own overlapping circles (so no less scientists when plopped into the right venue).

    Addressing the exaltation of _x_ person(s) / group(s) in general...

    Many if not most of us (especially when young) will continue to need [imperfect] idols as mediators between ourselves and what might otherwise be a direct "worship" of or conformity to the more reliable abstract principle or invented system. The latter which a concrete, mortal figure dynamically symbolizes and illustrates (via life, career, works, actions). As well as apparently even non-living static figures and icons. This goes back to the ancients turning concepts and both natural and artificial cycles / conditions into anthropic beings. With which both the illiterate and "show me"-dependent segments of the population could better relate to. [The goddesses of harvest, justice, love, fertility, etc. The gods of sea, metalworking, festivals, anger, etc.]

    Blah Blah 1: "Amy, don't feel bad that _x_ activist disillusioned you with their nervous breakdown and gunning down of four children in that mall. It was only the standard which they exemplified that you felt adoration for to begin with. The latter formulated "ought" didn't let you down, only the always flawed / contingent human embodying the ___ (scheme, principle, concept, system, methodology, etc)."

    Blah Blah 2: "Tommy, don't regard an idealized prescription as something to be discarded simply because no person could successfully adhere to it in all situations of this relational or inter-dependent world. It should be regarded as stimulating a map or territory of behavior that you should try to stay within and not stray too far from. A utopian model which provides evaluative measurement of how close or far you are to it in terms of matching what its perfect citizens would be. Always strive to keep the shoreline of the idea within sight; venture too far into deep water and you invite being devoured by monsters or becoming one yourself from whence there is little hope of return."
     
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  5. Daecon Kiwi fruit Valued Senior Member

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    Didn't you already make a thread like this?
     
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  7. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    You doubt that they're more virtuous than anyone else, but then you describe how you think they're far less virtuous than average. No grey area there.

    Why do you grant one scientist cliche is a myth (the noble scientist), then in the same breath, propose an alternate, equally unsubstantiated cliche that they are "probably egocentric" or "snotty elitists who look down on humanity as ignorant and in desperate need of their guidance"?

    What if they're just people who, like most people on average, have a passion for what they do, and want to do a good job? Wouldn't be much of a discussion there, would there?
     
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  8. Daecon Kiwi fruit Valued Senior Member

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    MR has a hate-on for science and scientists.
     
  9. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Most people on average if put into a situation of having to be hypervigilant about their own ego and reputation would probably descend into dishonesty and compromise of their own personal ethics over time. It's not just a cliche. It happens in all careers where there is a high ambition for achievement while at the same time a high demand for quick and profitable results. It's the nature of the system. Science is afterall a servant of corporate capitalist profit on the one hand and academic prestige on the other.
     
  10. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    "...would probably..."

    This isn't really a comment on what the world is like; it's a comment on your mindset about the world.

    So here, you state that they are just like other people. Was that in question? The myth is a myth, right? It seems like you're trying to "re-debunk" a myth that has already been debunked.

    Scientists are people. We all agree.

    And you have one anecdote of one person who feels the same way as you. There's no doubt that many are not cut-out for the science discipline.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2016
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  11. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Uh no..it's really a comment on what the world is like.

    The article debunks the myth of the noble scientist by showing how scientists aren't any more noble or honest than anyone else. And it cites numerous examples of first hand experience proving that. Is there something about this that you don't get? Maybe this will clear it all up for you:

    "Finally, I think we scientists are guilty of promoting, or at least tolerating, a false popular image of ourselves that may be flattering but that, in the long run, leads to real difficulties when the public finds out that our behavior doesn't match that image. I like to call it The Myth of the Noble Scientist. It arises, I think out of the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of the truth, gathering facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. Thus the ideal scientist would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When it turns out, as invariably it does, that scientists are not at all like that, the public that we have mislead may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

    The fact is that scientists are usually rigorously honest about the things that really matter to them, such as the accurate reporting of procedures and data. In other arenas, such as disputes over priority or credit, they tend to behave like the ordinary mortals they are. Furthermore, scientists are not disinterested truth-seekers, they are more like players in an intense, winner-take-all competition for scientific prestige, or perhaps merchants in a no-holds barred market-place of ideas. The sooner we learn to admit to those facts, and to distinguish carefully between serious scientific misconduct, and common human conduct by scientists, the better off we'll all be."===http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/conduct_art.html
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2016
  12. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    No, really. It's your view of it. It's too vague to be either proveable or falsifiable, so it's your projection, which is why you chose the phrase "would probably".

    Does a myth require debunking? I mean ... if we agree it's a myth...
     
  13. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    Exactly. What would be more interesting would be some references to show who it is, or was, that ever claimed scientists were somehow different from ordinary mortals. I must say I have never come across it. Perhaps it is just another Aunt Sally?

    I suspect what may happen is that people are, rightly, taught that science, i.e. the body of human knowledge concerning nature, gets better and better over time and enables a vast amount of human progress. Some people may then confuse the nobility and success of the enterprise with the moral qualities of the various practitioners. But indeed history shows that scientists are, unsurprisingly, capable of just the same foibles, rivalries and shenanigans as anyone else.

    You sometimes get the same thing regarding other human achievements: people are shocked to discover that a musical genius like Mozart had such a juvenile, scatological sense of humour, or that Bach was a very difficult and irascible man to deal with, or whatever it may be. It may be a confusion of intellectual achievement with personal moral qualities.
     
  14. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    This proves that all musicians are snotty elitists who look down on humanity. The industry of music is utterly corrupt, and none of us should listen to a thing they produce.
     
  15. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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  16. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    It's always been partly definitive of what 'the left' is, and it isn't just America.

    I think that popular stereotype dates back to the Enlightenment. Newtonian mechanics became identified with 'reason' itself in the mind of Europe's trendy intellectuals, and physicists became the paradigmatic practitioners of 'reason'. So the idea took root that if the (perhaps largely mythical) "scientific method" employed by the physicists could just be bottled and then applied to all other aspects of life, obscurantism and 'old regimes' of all sorts would be exposed and swept away and a new utopian 'progressive' age would dawn.

    It's just that in 'continental' Europe two disastrous world wars profoundly shook that enlightenment scientistic faith in the inevitable march of progress, leading to a post-war crisis of "post-modern" skepticism on the European left.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2016
  17. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    Interesting. However I have to say my European experience (UK) does not fit this picture. In the 50s and 60s there was - as I recall it, growing up in a rather non-scientific household (my parents had read English and History) - there was still boundless faith in science as giving us all a better future: nuclear power (energy "too cheap to meter"), space travel, great medical leaps forward, etc. I do not think there was much sign, if any, that the war had called the march of progress - led by science - into question. In fact there were huge strides in science during the war and people's faith in it went up, not down, so far as I can see. The stereotype of the "boffin*", in his wire frame glasses and white coat, working to save the nation with some ingenious contraption, was made widespread in films like the Dambusters (1955).

    My experience was that it all started to change at the end of the 60s and early 70s: Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", a resurgence of Malthusian fears of overpopulation, the Vietnam war/Marxist adolescent rebelliousness, Les Evenements in France in 1968, and all that. All the hippie stuff was rather anti-rational and mystical, while science became increasingly associated with the establishment, short haired nerds in white coats who didn't smoke pot, and so on. I suppose by then the wartime "boffin" generation was middle aged and it was time for the young to turn against them ("Look, I died in the War for people like you.", as Spike Milligan lampooned it).

    Continental Europe may have been a less upbeat story, having been subject to German occupation, but I still do not recall any great disillusionment with science coming across the channel until the late 6os.

    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boffin
     
  18. Crcata Registered Senior Member

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    Your views on the world is not equal to how the world is. This is an objective fact.

    Most academic progress of practical use, is found or created by science. So sure, there are plenty of other theories or viewpoints out there, but just because someone thought it up doesn't make it useful. I guess that's the difference.

    Scientists like almost anyone else have an ego to deal with. And if you had the knowledge to be one, and the resources, it is absolutely a job that should be revered given all it has done. Thus it's no surprise a scientist would get an ego.

    Science is a product of establishment? Is "the establishment" inherently a bad thing? Mabye to conspiracy nuts like the flat earthers. Scientists have a loyalty to whom pays the bills, so they research and discover/create as instructed to by thier boss. Shouldn't be a surprise there. That's why there are different areas of research and experimentation.

    Science is most loyal to the truth, or atleast as close to the truth as can be humanly possible to get.

    What are you doing? Philosophizing? Yea, that's soooooo much better lolol.
     
  19. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    No it's a comment on how the world works and is supported by the logical argumentation which you conveniently left out when quoting my post.

    Sure myths need debunking, especially when they're widely held by the masses. Why shouldn't it be debunked? Does this upset you for some reason? Is there some reason you want this thread censored?
     
  20. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    I think for the first part of the 20th century we had a romanticized view of the lone scientist from people like Edison and Einstein and Linus Pauling. These were heroic figures of a higher moral caliber who selflessly devoted their wits to helping mankind thru science. But as has been pointed out, along came the Manhattan Project, the Tuskegee Experiments, the thalidomide scandal, the publishing of Brave New World, eugenics, inhumane psychiatric practices, and so on, and the scientist came to be seen as a servant of government and corporate power--a yes man who lent his credentials to all sorts of ethically questionable projects. The trope of the mad scientist bent on world domination has been common in comic books and movies since then, expressing an intuition that the obsession to control nature ends up twisting men into cold and inhuman powermongers. That ofcourse is an exaggeration, but it was the necessarily balancing countermyth to that of the noble and enlightened servant of humanity--- the lurking and monstrous Mr. Hyde to our beloved and conscientous Dr. Jekyll.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2016
  21. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    Sure. Through your eyes (and the eyes of a Swiss student, and an author whose been dead for almost a generation).

    Well that's the key. What makes you think it's they widely believed by the masses that scientists are more virtuous than the rest of us? Maybe our parents' generation, but I think this argument is a few decades late. That's why it's a myth, and not a fact.

    Is there some reason you think I want this thread censored?

    You posted it in the a public forum, rather than, say a blog with comments turned off, so it's pretty clear you want to discuss it. I'm discussing it.
     
  22. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    "Though many Americans are lacking in their own knowledge of basic science

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    , a majority have a high opinion of scientists and are eager to hear about new discoveries, according to a new report.

    More than 90 percent of Americans say scientists are "helping to solve challenging problems" and are "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity," the report shows."===http://www.livescience.com/43399-american-opinion-of-scientists.html
     
  23. Daecon Kiwi fruit Valued Senior Member

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    So of course while scientists are morally corrupt, the ghost hunters, bigfoot hunters, and alien hunters are completely noble and virtuous, right?
     

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