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).