If someone on the right wants to debunk biology, for example, and is denied here, they will complain Big Science (that would be us) is part of some vast, left-wing conspiracy to block out opposing views and protect academic funding. If someone on the left wants to debunk another aspect of biology (all of it except evolution, it seems) they will complain Big Science (that would be us) is part of some vast, right-wing conspiracy to block out opposing views and protect corporate funding. Neither is true. It just isn't possible, scientists are too darn difficult to play along with any organized agenda.
But you wouldn't know that if you went by the carefully crafted public perception of science. As I like to note for people who think they know science but have never met any actual scientists - a lot of scientists hate each other. While everyone wants to have a piece of quality work accepted and validated by peers, it's a lot more fun to show up someone else. Some anti-science religious people may think biologists are out to cover up the spontaneous generation of man from nothing, but the fact is that any biologist who can prove there is a God - or even that evolution has not happened - is going to get the biggest Nobel Prize ever, and they will happily do it if the evidence shows it, the rest of biologists be damned. Anti-science hippies are no better, they think that anyone who leaves academia and is trying to help feed a billion people is a misguided, unethical, modern-day Frankenstein out to kill the planet and create carnivorous unicorns that pee oil. Or whatever.
Why can people believe such different things about the same people? Because scientists are human. They want to win and they want to be right. Sometimes, like anyone else, they will lie, cheat and steal. If we want science to be exciting to young people, argues Michael Brooks in Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, it would be better to shuck off the modern public relations campaign centered around the robotic, unemotional scientist obeying the scientific method and instead provide examples where true creativity - including sometimes how creatively data was massaged to get it to match a 'gut' instinct - resulted in tremendous breakthroughs.
So you should buy it.
His book goes a long way toward making scientists - and science - a lot more real to the public. And to show how sometimes trusting a gut instinct is a good thing, even if the data is not there yet (though let's not get crazy and think that is an endorsement of crazy speculation, like M-theory or that middle-class white girls in America have a gene for anorexia).
There was a perception, for example, that having a famous scientist in President Obama's cabinet would be a good thing after the Bush years - yet John Holdren is no boring, rational scientist, he is a Doomsday prophet who talked about a population explosion, where we would have to manipulate the Constitution to create a world government and implement forced sterilization and abortion, and before that he talked about a global ice age. Much later he flipped and believed in global warming. Basically, if there is a doomsday scenario he will jump on it. A crank, right? No, his hypotheses were reasonable at the time, even if they were bordering on popular tripe by the time he set out to science them up. If he ends up being right, though, all the times he was wrong will disappear. It helps to get a government endorsement because working in government implies legitimacy to scientists. Heck, Larry Summers, who believed as president of a major university that girls can't do math, had all his cultural sins washed away when Obama put him on the transition team in 2008.
But no one has benefited from a modern public relations campaign like Galileo. Mostly because eeeeevil religion persecuted him by putting him up in a swanky house to live out his days. Brooks debunks that myth too; it wasn't religion that was most hard on Galileo, it was other scientists. If you think Republicans ignore 'inconvenient truths' about climate, imagine what you would think if you were a scientist in the early 1600s and Galileo ignored a whole moon. In actuality, religion was not against him, his patrons were the wealthiest religious family in Italy and he was quite close to Pope Urban VIII. The Pope was a scientifically literate man who wanted a convincing argument about Copernicus, he even helped pick the title of the book, "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", to avoid controversy - then it got banned for two centuries anyway, making Galileo adored by atheists who forget it was a bestseller and that the Catholic church banning it made no difference. More importantly for this discussion, some of it was rubbish, even at that time.
Galileo was no beacon of scientific integrity, in the sense that we regard scientists now. When his idea about the tides did not match Kepler or math, for example, he set about ridiculing both and ignoring facts that disagreed with him - sailors all around the world would have been baffled (had they been able to read) at Galileo's data concluding that the tides only happened once per day if they happened at all, they happened at the same time every day, and that Luna had nothing to do with them.
He had some glaring stuff wrong, he was simply convinced he was right on the biggest issue, like any pseudoscientist. Basically, he got a right answer using the wrong methods, which would flunk every science student in every university of today. When it came to the bigger picture, and his gut instincts, he was not rational.
The case can be made that transformative science is not rational either, only incremental boring science is. Maybe promoting the idea that scientists are a little crazy will be inspirational. We can insist the National Science Foundation has to spend more than $5 billion promoting science to young people, but the thing that would be better public relations is to stop embracing the myth that science is so dull. People are not rational yet scientists are perpetuating the notion that they are excessively unimaginative and rigid.
It may be time to stop dialing down the personal nature of science discovery.
Science gets done by the scientific method - but a lot of it is done by anarchy too. Yet it's a secret sort of anarchy. Whenever outsiders are looking, they tend to close ranks. Brooks uses the example of a confrontation between planetary scientists and science fiction author (and Science 2.0 columnist) David Brin and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, over trying to contact aliens. The fight is vitriolic, Brooks notes, until a person outside the field asks an entry-level question. It seems, says Brooks, that scientists like to keep fights private and protect the carefully crafted image. Maybe. Or maybe they are arguing on a level we just don't understand and it does more harm than good to expose that to the public so they put their game faces back on when non-experts are involved. I wrote a piece chiding SETI for continuing to try and detect radio waves from space since, let's face it, it requires a belief that an alien culture transmitted those radio waves 400 years before we invented radio, and they had to know what frequencies we would use and send exactly those at the right time. Brin was unapologetic about telling me I was clueless, even though he has argued the same thing - we shouldn't do it - just for different reasons.
There are other examples. When Senator Tom Coburn, the only fiscal hawk in the government, included National Science Foundation waste in a report, it was the perfect opportunity for scientists to get more funding - all they had to do was keep quiet and let him kill studies of Farmville and Everquest 2 and more real science would get funded with that now available money. But, no, it was a politician criticizing funding so they closed ranks, meaning if anything ever happens from his report (it won't), funding would get cut, since scientists showed they did not want to be part of the solution, instead of actually changed to only fund real science.
The book isn't always about fights or people who fudge the numbers or ignore inconvenient data - sometimes anarchist scientists are bucking the system for the best of reasons and 'the system' blocking them are other scientists. He relates the story of the creators of in vitro fertilization. It wasn't religious people in their way (though obviously there were objections from that camp) it was other people in the science and medical community. They lacked the pedigree, they were told, basically they were radical outsiders, and they were moving too fast, they didn't deserve funding, etc.
Well, perhaps their detractors had some reason for objecting. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe had never had a live birth of a 'test tube baby' yet they didn't tell the desperate parents that - which is ethically suspect to some and a sign of their overarching ambition. But it worked and they have made it possible for millions of couples to have children, no mutant babies occurred like the medical establishment said would happen.
And the breakthrough received a Nobel prize in 2010 - so the establishment doesn't always hold a grudge against outsiders. It just happens that success often makes you go from radical outsider to ultimate insider, as the names Craig Venter and Carl Sagan can attest.