Monday, January 24, 2011

"Great Men" and Science

Those who’ve read me before know that I’m a big supporter of the scientific method, the scientific community and the results of science. That’s not an unqualified support, of course... the success of any construct composed of people is, of course, the people involved.

The key for me is that science should not (and generally does not) designate Great Men (apologies for the gendered language, but I feel using an outdated term makes my point better). Let me illustrate why this important this way: one common tactic of Creationists to assault Evolution (as if disproving Evolution could in any way validate Creationism) is to attack Darwin himself. This is usually done either by attacking the man, pointing out that he was religious, or claiming that he recanted on his deathbed.

The fact that he was religious is no secret. Many evolutionary biologists are religious (by some counts, most of them) and Darwin himself saw no incompatibility between his theory and religion itself... only between his theory and a literal interpretation of Genesis. The personal attacks do not reflect on his theory, while his deathbed recanting has been repeatedly debunked.

However, the counterargument is unnecessary. The disconnect is this: that even if his religious life was a factor in his research, even if he were a terrible person, even if he did recant... it would not affect his theory. In religion, people believe what powerful people say because they are Great Men. Jesus is trusted because he’s the Son of God, Mohammed because he is Allah’s prophet, Paul because he was supposedly revealing divine wisdom. Their teachings are taken wholesale and treated as truth because of their source. Apologists are fond of arguing that their texts are more reliable than science because textbooks change while scripture is eternal.

But this is not how Science works. Darwin, Einstein, Hawking all had to prove their theories before they were accepted. Evolution through natural selection was in fact not fully accepted until the second half of the 20th century, when it was merged with its principle competitor – gene theory – thanks to the discovery and analysis of DNA. In science, we do not believe people because they are Great. We believe they are Great because their discoveries were tested, proven and withstood the test of time. Had Darwin recanted on his deathbed, it would not have changed the fact that his discovery was right; truth is independent of the researcher.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work; an ideal case. Unfortunately, it often isn’t so simple in the real world, where professional reputations can intimidate others from testing hypotheses. This seems to be particularly the case in medical research, where evidence is emerging of peer review being used not to improve knowledge but to quash competition. Medical knowledge has, for some reason, always proven resistant to scientific inquiry and reverent of the Great Men. The Greek physician Galen made many advances in his own day and perhaps deserved his reputation; but it was only in the 17th century that his theory of uni-directional blood flow was overturned. Up until the 20th century, medical schools often preferred to teach Galen directly rather than later, more reliable texts (and making Galen instead part of the history of medicine instead of its present). To medicine, too, the unchanging nature of the old texts had value.

I feel it’s important to point out the failings of science, just as it is to point out its successes, and to add my voice to the concerns of the Cult of the Great Man over Evidence. Good science is skeptical; good science challenges what we know and recognises that our knowledge is imperfect. It searches for perfection, knowing it will never reach it. There must always be researchers who challenge the status quo, because a strong theory will of necessity stand up to any scientific scrutiny. If it cannot, it must be replaced. Great Men are no substitute for evidence and scientific rigor.


  1. Holy crap a new post! Hooray!
    Nicely presented and thoroughly logical, good sir. But I would find it easier to take your argument seriously if you had won a medal or something.

  2. Huzzah!

    Yeah, I totally need a medal. I don't suppose my first place in the obstacle course in my grade 3 athletics carnival will count?

  3. Oh! I didn't know.
    Then yeah, your article is correct.

  4. I like this argument. Have you read a book by Eliot Freidson called Professional Powers? Quite old now but it is relevant. If my memory serves me right, he discusses the difference between formal knowledge and informal knowledge as the basis for power and prestige. Formal knowledge is that which can be codified, say some technical issue. The argument about who is right can then be about the science and not about the person. The climate debate is an interesting example. Critics have tried to focus on the personal failings of the scientists but in the end it is about the science – however badly it is understood. Medicine is different. There is a technical component, the science of medicine, but there is also what is sometimes called the art of medicine – the intangible things like judgment and clinical skills. It is the art of medicine that is taught by a sort of apprenticeship of young doctors to the clinical Great Men at whose feet they sit (figuratively). It is this informal knowledge that is resistant to challenge from outside that underlies the power of a profession and, in turn, sustains the Great Men.
    How then does a scientific profession make changes? Easy, if it just a matter of science. But in medicine they said that sometimes the Great Men of medicine had to retire before real change could occur. But there is also the route through science. Evidence-based medicine was an attempt to use technical evidence from scientific studies to question the authority of the great clinical masters and it served this purpose to varying degrees, we are told.