Marching For Science

We’re marching for science (I hope you come, too),
With science defined as “what scientists do”—
A good definition if ever there was,
Although science is not “what a scientist does”.

I was reading a piece on scientific outreach to audiences beyond their immediate peers, and came across this:

We should remember that science is the behavior of scientists, subject not only to their success with its subject matters but also subject to social contingencies between scientists and cultural contingencies across them

As most readers here are surely already aware, there have been voices expressing displeasure that this march is not for some Platonic Ideal of Science, one unsullied by concerns about underrepresented groups, sexism, racism, politics, or, I don’t know, gravity. You know, all sorts of things that actually do matter and make a difference in the lives and actions of scientists.

There is no ideal Science that is this abstract thing that every individual scientist does. I gave a talk a few years ago, and in preparing for it I took a look for definitions of “the scientific method”; I found sources that said it was three steps, four steps, up to seven steps, as “the” method. I found sources that dismissed things other sources found crucial. I found hugely influential scientists who claimed they never followed anything like the scientific method. There simply is no standard “science” that is what a scientist does.

Rather, science is what scientists do. The plural is crucial. Science is the activity of a community, necessarily so. The versions of the scientific method are an external structure, a scaffolding, that organizes the efforts of individuals. If we are naturally not very self-critical, a peer review process (pre and post publication) outsources criticism. If we want to defend our ideas and attack those of others, a scientific community harnesses our desires to critically assess ideas and (in the long run) converge on agreement. Science is a process that requires a community; it is not something that can be done alone.

And that community is part of the world, and has concerns beyond those of the laboratory. That community is not, historically, equally welcome in academia. Addressing the issues that treat us differently is, obviously, in the best interest of science; if this is a collective endeavor, it is held back when any of us are impeded. Science is what scientists do, not what a scientist does.


  1. says

    Scientific progress takes effort in both directions, from the micro to the macro and back again. It is the individual mind finding its insights that energizes the group, and the community that nurtures the individual to highest achievement. The totalitarians at either end, the collectivists and the individualists, have tunnel vision. Two heads are better than one, but you can’t have two without one plus one. Everything begins from the singularity. Keep your socialist politics and their buckets of -isms out of science’s pursuit of truth and reality.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    There is no singularity. No “one”. Humans are social animals, and cannot adequately be defined within the confines of, say, skin. You (all of you reading this) are part of me, and I (and this is not ego–I promise, I have very little of that) am part of you.

    The same thing is even more true in science, where we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We cannot possibly do science without others; alone in our labs, we are inexorably linked to others. Isms are reality.

    When the collectivists and individualists are fighting, remember, it is possible that one side is simply wrong. The pursuit of truth must start from Point A, and Point A is in the real world. The real world has real contingencies, and for our social species those contingencies include each other, and include biases, discrimination, prejudice, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and more. Isms are reality. Ignore them at your peril.

    If two heads are better than one, then it behooves us all to care about the other head. Spoiler: it is attached to a person, in a culture, in our world. There are no Two Heads in some Platonic Ideal Space. The community does not nurture the individual, the community is part of the individual.

  3. StevoR says

    @ ^ Me earlier in case it wasn’t already clear :

    March anyhow and work to make things better.

    Even more axiomatic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *