Saturday, May 10, 2008

Science as High Priest

Modern science is, unquestionably, one of mankind's greatest intellectual achievements. Unfortunately, success breeds arrogance, nowhere more apparent than in the following headline in Scientific American:

Scientists Know Better Than You -- Even When They're Wrong

As F. A. Hayek pointed out in his book, The Counter-Revolution of Science, scientific methods have their limits. Asking science to research the physical world is a wonderful thing. Asking it to correct the errors of the entire human race is a terrible mistake.

The headline of this article is completely misleading. It implies that the work of Harry Collins --the sociologist whose work it reviews-- tells us that non-scientists should kowtow to scientists, even when scientists make incorrect declarations outside of their narrow field of specialization.

That is clearly not Mr. Collins position. What he does say is that the tacit knowledge of a group is as important as explicit knowledge, and that without tacit knowledge, you can "talk the walk" but you can't do the job. Rather than aggrandizing the opinions of scientists, I believe his message is to respect the views of specialists, but to also be skeptical of those specialists when they offer themselves as definitive authorities on topics outside of their training and professional network.

Anything more than that is not respect; it comes dangerously close to worship, and I can hardly think of anything less worthy of that than a bunch of irredeemably fallible humans.

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