Thursday, May 8, 2008

Meta-Blogging: Simon Blackburn and his Myths

Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor from the University professor, late last month appeared in the Times Higher Education series on academics talking "off-piste," i.e. on subjects that were beyond the realms of a) the status of higher education, or b) their primary area of expertise. Blackburn went on a nice bit of polemic, and he's caused a bit of discussion, whether it be cranky philosophers, inquisitive scientist-cum-philosophers, or (my personal favourite) being turned into a football game. As always, the comment sections are a joy to peruse.

As Catherine mentioned in the comments section of her last post, we do have those pesky things called doctoral theses to get back to, but I'll spend a bit of time talking about one of my personal favourites, Blackburn's myth #4- the myth of the scientist:

This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false. There is no such thing as a scientist, and it is a shame that William Whewell, a rather patchy philosopher (although a Cambridge man), invented the term. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on. These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.

Problems such as foot-and-mouth disease, global temperatures and badgers, to name but three, need different baskets of expertises, if indeed there are any to be had. A fortiori, there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist. A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth. This ignores the huge proportion of physical scientists who work for the misnamed Ministry of Defence, and the biological scientists who work for big pharma, trying to get around the patents on drugs that do little for the disease burden of the world but that can be sold to the rich. Scientists have one catch-all answer when confronted with such unfortunate facts, which is to claim that the critic must be some kind of relativist. This is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.

I love this, because it plays in precisely with the entire point of this series in The Times. Blackburn is correct, I believe: there is a growing trend of hyper-specialisation in the sciences. But that's not enough to be an answer for us, and I'm going to separate Blackburn's initial comment regarding the non-existence of the scientist into two factors: The scientist as a taxonomic term, and the scientist as a lifestyle.

If, as some in the above articles would suggest, believe that Blackburn is referring to the taxonomy of humans into respective fields of endeavour, then it is safe to say that Blackburn has misstepped. Of course there are scientists. Blackburn's myth #1 plays strongly into this: we give the word meaning to class a certain range of endeavours: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, (some think) psychology, even medicine, and many more, plus the sub disciplines of each. Where there is the behemoth of a field of discovery called science, a way of gaining knowledge about the world termed the "scientific method," there will be scientists. In this way, the term scientist exists, but far removed from the idea of a scientist , which is far more controversial.

The second part of Blackburn's article outlines what he seems to perceive as a number of conflicting positions scientists fill in this world which eat away at the image of the scientist. I'd go so far to say that this is correct, and a little sad for the scientific enterprise. To be sure, I've met men and women of science in the true sense of the words: disinterested, sharing, skeptical, and humble. Everything Merton could have dreamed. But there aren't many, and indeed Merton has many, many critics. Scientists as a group of people are diverse: there are the near-monastic scientists who are aware that they have ethical obligations to the larger community for the trust placed upon them in their expertise. There is also a legion of science-jerks out there. And for better or worse, their skill cannot inform us on which ones they will be.

Should this idea, "the scientist," exist? I think so. When you look back on the history of the sciences, those who embody the scientist tend to achieve greatness on a level that exceeds mere publication record. They also make a contribution to the society in which they reside, and occasionally even to the world as a whole. This is not to say that they are the only ones, but their contributions are often startling. And, in line with The Times' point regarding academics talking "off-piste," the "scientists" of history were often generalists. We can't all be, because sometimes, that's not the set of tools we are born with. Some people are designed to do one thing, and do that with a skill without peer. But for the rest of us, to learn more about the breadth of the experiences in this world makes us more conscious of our place within it. And if my thesis works out, that could solve some problems within science at the moment.

This was a little off track, but hey. In summery: Blackburn's piece reeks of polemic and rant. That's cool, but he's fallen prey to his first myth: he's incited responses that don't consider the full import of a situation, but instead react based on the meaning of words. That said, he has some points worth discussing, even if he may be a little extreme at times.

Back to the thesis!

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