On the denigration of science: Atul Gawande’s commencement address to Caltech

A short while ago, when we were chewing over Siddhartha Mukherjee’s distortions about epigenetics published in The New Yorker, I reproduced an email from a colleague discussing the magazine’s generally absymal and postmodernist take on science—but also singling out one author as an exception:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

Gawande (born 1965) is a surgeon who also happens to be a staff writer for the New Yorker, one of the best writing gigs there is. And I agree with my correspondent: he’s very good. You can see his salubrious attitude toward science in something he just published in the magazine, a transcript of the address he gave on Friday at the Caltech (California Institute of Technology) commencement. It’s called “The mistrust of science.” (See the video below.)

I was happy to see that Gawande made several of the points I stressed in Faith Versus Fact: science is more a way of knowing than a body of facts; its methodology, honed over centuries of experience, is a reliable way to understand nature, while views based on faith or ideology are not; that “asserting the true facts of good science” is a better way to correct scientific misunderstandings or ideological opposition than is simply rebutting good science (something I tried to do in WEIT). Here’s just a bit:

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

Well, I’m not sure how rickety the enterprise really looks: bad writing is endemic in academia, but so long as it’s intelligible it’s no block to scientific progress (try reading some of the early papers on quantum mechanics!). Letters to the editor, which are really corrections, are useful in calling out errors or distortions. “Pompous pronouncements of the academy” (I assume Gawande means scientific bodies like the National Academy or Royal Society) have little effect on the progress of science, though they may affect public policy. And “subreddit threads” are completely irrelevant to scientists; I don’t think I’ve ever read one. But Gawande’s right: the self-correcting “hive mind”, even though motivated largely by careerism and ambition, is unique to science, and completely alien to theology and pseudoscience.

Gawande’s final words to the graduates were these:

Today, you become part of the scientific community, arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history. In doing so, you also inherit a role in explaining it and helping it reclaim territory of trust at a time when that territory has been shrinking.

. . . The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.

Here’s the talk if you’d prefer to watch rather than read:

Addendum: Gawande made one statement that will rile up gun lovers (in bold):

Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).

It turns out that, indeed, you’re not safer owning a gun (see also here).



  1. George
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Mukherjee is a more typical human being – driven by ego. Gawande seems to be driven by curiosity and compassion. One of the best things he wrote is his piece on checklists – in the New Yorker no less.

  2. Mark Joseph
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Very nice. Today’s Baldo cartoon, while much shorter, makes essentially the same point; in my comment there I linked to this, particularly à propos meme.

  3. GBJames
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink


  4. Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Another NYer staff writer, Michael Specter, who has written in the magazine about GMOs and gluten, among other subjects, is also exceptionally strong and persuasive. His recent book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives,” is quite worthy.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    His complaint that science involves building on the work of others is hardly a complaint at all and just a description of what it is to work in academia in any discipline. I find that whole part perplexing. I agree about the part about “truth-seeking”. I think this is the value of any university education.

    It seems there was a lot of stating of the obvious but in a way to make the obvious seem somehow bad.

    • colnago80
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

      Isaac Newton.

  6. AL Watson
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    As a non-scientist who sometimes marvels at the significant scientific reversals in various facets of our daily experience. Salt/eggs/meat is bad for you. Now it’s fine. Butter is bad, now it’s good. Etc etc.

    It does highlight the core nature of scientific inquiry, that it is not static and always subject to continuous validation or refutation, but it is difficult to grope one’s way through the mass of certain assertions only to find out that it wasn’t that certain after all. Easier to just take it all with a grain of salt and wait for it to change.

    • Ben
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Thanks for posting the link to this. Liked Gawande’s repeating of “Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time,” which I hadn’t seen before.

      Atul Gawande is one of the bright lights of The New Yorker, along with Louis Menand and Jill Lopore.

      • Posted June 13, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        The philosopher of biology David Hull actually attempted to put Planck’s dictum to the test. It seems, at least in natural (as opposed to social or mixed) science to be false. See _Science as Process_.

    • dabertini
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Salt, eggs, meat and butter are not fine!! Maybe in moderation, but science has not given them a free ride. Salt, for instance, has been removed from our hospital meals as too much sodium still causes hypertension.

      • Posted June 12, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        What a healthy diet should be comprised of for humans is still in a state of flux.
        Scientists are learning that genetics play a role in what is healthy for individuals to eat. We’ve known for a long time that some groups of people are lactose-intolerant, for example. Scientists are learning that this applies to other foods also. Some foods I may eat and enjoy, might make you sick.

        Salt is not bad for all people. Doctors just don’t know which individuals have a problem so come up with low consumption figures that they apply to everyone. Moderate consumption of eggs, meat and butter, just like moderation in all other dietary elements, is for the most part safe and healthy. Most of the unhealthiness of our foods is due to factory type raising, feeding and processing: feed lots and buildings with insufficient space for each animal that makes them live in unhealthy conditions for which they are given antibiotics. Also, feeding animals foods they aren’t meant to eat such as corn and soy instead of grass. Also, unsanitary conditions for butchering and packaging.

        In fact, grass fed beef, butter from grass fed cows and eggs from free range chickens are healthier than the usual factory-produced foods we currently eat. It’s not the eggs, meat and butter that’s bad for us. It’s how they’re raised and processed.

        • GBJames
          Posted June 12, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

          You’re posing a false choice. Grass fed beef is likely better for you than feedlot beef, almost certainly. But that doesn’t mean that eating lots of grass-fed beef is good for you. How they are raised and processed is important but it isn’t everything or even the main factor.

  7. Tom Czarny
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Regarding gun ownership, Mark Kelly, ret. Navy Captain, astronaut and Gabby Giffords husband, has founded a PAC called Americans for Responsible Solutions calling for stricter gun regulations, and here’s the interesting twist: he has recruited several retired high-ranking military officials to support him, including Army generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. http://mobile.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/06/10/us/ap-us-gun-safety-group-veterans.html?partner=IFTTT&referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FSYxBhZKoYp

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I read about this just yesterday in the paper. We hope that it might somehow make a difference but I will remain skeptical. The gun lovers will say these high ranking military types have gone off the reservation and are traitors.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    It’s fine to say that human values should inform science as long as we ALSO say science should inform human values.

    See above on autism & vaccines, etc.

  9. Damien McLeod
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, I especially like the Addendum: Gawande made one statement that will rile up gun lovers:

    “Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is)”

    It turns out that, indeed, you’re not safer owning a gun.(see also here).

  10. Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    “subreddit threads” are completely irrelevant to scientists; I don’t think I’ve ever read one.

    Oh, I wouldn’t say “completely”.



    • Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve done reddit “ask me anythings”, too. What I should have said is that “subreddit threads” aren’t part of the normal practice of science, and they don’t affect the practice of science in any way. It wasn’t fair to lump them in with stuff like published criticism and peer review.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink


  11. Rupinder
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Awesome! Thanks for posting! He also gave Reith Lectures a while back which I listened on the podcast. Very good, also highly recommended.
    Glad to see these people carrying the beacon of reason and science forward.


  12. colnago80
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an example of the type of stuff that climate scientists have to put up with HT to Phil Plait. Representative Smith is the personal property of the fossil fuel industry.


  13. W.Benson
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    “genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial”:
    Business with big capital investiments and potentially big payoffs like the GMO industry are always dangerous. I agree, however, that ‘molecularly’ modified food plants have not shown themselves to be health dangers to people because they eat them. The potential for harm mostly lies elsewhere.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      No, I think it is meant as stated. On balance those crops have been beneficial to society. Anything that increases yield, increases nutritional value and decrease -icides is beneficial.

      You are speculating in unobserved risks, aren’t you?

    • Posted June 12, 2016 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      We should not be lumping this discussion under a GMO heading. We need be specific and clear in terminology we use when we claim to be talking abouttalking about “GMO”. There might be far less emotional response to the issue if the terminology used were correct and the
      areas of discussion more rigorously defined. If the issue is Monsanto, poisons on foods, corporate control of farming, etc. lets talk about that. Damning the whole history of, and current efforts to, improve on the efficacy
      of crops that grow faster and are healthier, that have increased vitamin-content for the humans that eat them is shameful. Clarification of the topic range and specificity of terminology will help make the conversation less emotional and more productive to hold.

  14. Merilee
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink


  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    ‘“asserting the true facts of good science” is a better way to correct scientific misunderstandings or ideological opposition than is simply rebutting good science (something I tried to do in WEIT).’

    ‘rebutting good science’ ?

    Typo, I think?


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] via On the denigration of science: Atul Gawande’s commencement address to Caltech — Why Evolution I… […]

%d bloggers like this: