Sunday, February 18, 2007

Doggerel #60: "But [Famous Scientist] Believed in [Woo]!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One point that must sometimes be made over and over again is something quite simple: Science isn't some sort of ivory tower. It's a method. Scientists aren't all that special: They're just human beings who are supposed to have more experience with the scientific method. The fact that they're human means that they can make mistakes. They're subject to all the foibles of being human, which can include blind faith and wishful thinking.

That's why science focuses on the evidence: If you're going to say, for example, that Newton believed in alchemy, God, or whatever, you'd better be prepared to present his evidence. In fact, you should probably save some time by not bothering to mention Newton: The person who makes an argument is irrelevant to the validity of the argument. Newton's got a lot of well-deserved prestige, but that doesn't change the fact that he's made some poor arguments in his time.

Because I do my best to stay focused on the evidence, I typically remember experiments more readily than the scientists who performed them. About the only time I care about the scientists is when they've earned a reputation for sloppiness or dishonesty.


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Infophile said...

To be fair, I also care about scientists when they have a reputation of being quite funny. Well, and since I am involved in science, it makes a bit of difference if it's someone I'm working with/around.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, Newton and his alchemy. Ooh, don't forget Pascal and his nonsense - in fact, in the case of Pascal and others, I believe there's a close inverse corrolation between their effectiveness as scientists and the extent to which they eventually descended into "spiritual" prattle.

TheBrummell said...

Because I do my best to stay focused on the evidence, I typically remember experiments more readily than the scientists who performed them.

I find myself often doing something similar. Unfortunately, remembering scientists' names is important, since papers are almost always cited by author name, and my harddrive is full of PDFs of scientific papers that I really should read right now, all named after their authors.

I frequently discover myself thinking of some very important study I need to look up and re-read, but I can only remember the study organism, or major findings, or that figure 2 was pretty cool, without being able to remember who wrote it (and, hence, the file name).

Also, when one goes to a scientific conference, one ends up meeting face-to-face many scientists who are highly influential in their respective fields - and if you're at the same meeting as them, that probably means your field of study, too. One person whose name I should have remembered was mildly annoyed with me for not recognizing her instantly by name (everyone wears nametags at these deals). She's written several quite important papers that I ended up citing repeatedly in my Master's thesis, but when I met her and she smiled and pointed at her nametag, I kind of just stood there looking dumb.

Lifewish said...

Anyone else noticed that this particular bit of Doggerel often cites a famous scientist who died long before [woo] was conclusively disproven? Creationists, I'm looking at you...