How special is science?


“The scientific method originated with Aristotle‘s idea that knowledge came from careful observation, and was brought into modern form by Galileo‘s collection of empirical evidence.” IMAGE/Wikipedia

Science is special. Its central idea – collecting data about the real world, using it to formulate theories and hypotheses about how things work, and then testing them against observations or experiments in precise and quantified ways – has been shown again and again to be a remarkably powerful means of developing understanding that can be relied on and applied in useful ways.

The Covid-19 pandemic has supplied one of the starkest demonstrations of the value of this approach, not least in the development of vaccines that evidently work to protect us against the coronavirus.

While in practice this “scientific method” is messier and more ad hoc than is typically acknowledged, nonetheless it is a precious discovery in itself, and one that scientists are rightly keen to defend. When they hear accusations that scientific knowledge is shaped by social and political processes, that it is just one way of understanding the world, and that the process by which it is attained should be subject to constraints dictated by prevailing social mores, they may fear that the phenomenal benefits we have derived from science, and indeed the sheer intellectual value that inheres in it, are being threatened and undermined.

Such fears are, I believe, at the root of some recent commentaries deploring a perceived assault on science and rationality itself from demands that it adapt its practices and lexicon to current sociopolitical trends, in particular to calls for greater equality, social justice and respect for differences of race, sexuality and identity.

It is one thing to ask us as individuals to accommodate such things in our speech and actions – to recognize, for example, that our institutions are afflicted by deep-rooted prejudices and biases, and that such things are habitual in our personal behavior. But (the argument goes) science as an enterprise and methodology is special in this regard, too. Scientific ideas that have been shown to be reliable become no less so because their originators were products of their time, with all the prejudices that might entail. Science (it is asserted) is the paradigmatic meritocracy: it judges an individual’s contribution, and rewards it accordingly, purely on the basis of how well it helps us to understand the world, irrespective of gender, nationality, or skin color.

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