Dec 22 2010

Scientific Heresy

If ever there were an oxymoron it is this phrase: “scientific heresy.” I understand it may be used at times as a bit of poetic license,  a metaphor for a new and seemingly outrageous (but scientific) idea, but I despise it none-the-less. The phrase is more often used as a direct or implied criticism of science and scientists, and generates deliberate confusion.

The notion of heresy is – well, Wikipedia actually has a good summary:

Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion. The founder or leader of a heretical movement is called a heresiarch, while individuals who espouse heresy or commit heresy, are known as heretics.

Heresiology is the study of heresy.

Now, I’m no heresiologist, but it seems to me that the core of the notion of “heresy” is inexorably tied to the notion of dogma – a fixed set of beliefs promoted and sustained through authority. Dogma and heresy are anathema to science.

Science is not a set of beliefs (and therefore there can be no dogma), it is a set of methods for investigating the natural world, for understanding how it works, what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present, and what is likely to happen in the future. Science is based upon methodological naturalism – essentially that effects in nature must be explained with causes in nature. Magic is not allowed, for no other reason than the fact that magic is not amenable to scientific methodology.

This has been the accepted definition of science for a couple of centuries. Philosophers of science have hashed this out and picked over all the arguments pretty thoroughly. Most practicing scientists understand this.

Institutions of science certainly understand this. In fact, science is institutionalized change. Research is all about changing what we think we know about the universe. Static beliefs that are not amenable to change are of not much use to researchers.

What I often see, however, is people who are not scientists and do no regularly talk to scientists naively characterizing them based upon a negative cardboard stereotype  – perhaps based upon media cliche or the criticisms of anti-scientists.

If you have ever been in a room when a completely disruptive bit of new evidence is being presented, you will have seen scientists light up with excitement about the possibilities. Smashing our previously held conclusions makes scientists giggle like school girls. Sure, there will be appropriate skepticism too. And if the new evidence is crap, you may see only skepticism. But if its compelling, scientists start to drool over the research implications.

So it always amazes me when non-scientists assume that scientists get upset about new evidence. They need to stop thinking that movie scientists are real, and start reading, watching, or talking to real scientists.

Here is a comment from a recent Science Magazine article on the arsenic-based life hubbub:

I think all this criticism is very unfair, but it comes with the territory when you challenge held beliefs. Scientists can be so childish when you upset their status quo, it’s almost as if she committed heresy.

Well, all the criticism was not unfair. Much of it was very well-founded and highly technical. It remains to be seen if the new evidence for bacteria using arsenic in their DNA will stand up to further investigation. Criticism is the way in which we will find out – picking apart the results, replicating the research, and pursuing further implications and angles.

Scientists do not get upset when the status quo is upset – they hate the status quo. The status quo does not garner research grants, high-impact publications, and academic recognition. Disrupting the status quo does that.

Just expect to meet an appropriate level of skepticism when you try to break the so-called status quo. Most such attempts fail – because they are flawed and their conclusions wrong. How do we separate the few nuggets of real new information from the pile of crap – through harsh (but scientific) criticism.

The commenter is confusing being fair with being nice. The self-critical aspect of science is not nice. It’s brutal – necessarily so. But it is still fair and professional, just not politically correct.

This is one critical aspect of science that I feel the public needs to better appreciate. This is also a fun and dramatic aspect of science – real world mud fights where scientists go at each-other’s throats. The mass media needs to appreciate this real drama more so that they will rely on their hackneyed Hollywood cartoon of science less.

Real science is more interesting than this fiction of heresy vs dogma.

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