Logic, labs and lucky pants
Science may be rational, but scientists certainly aren’t
18 January 2006
Do we actually need to believe in science to be able to do it?
I have always considered myself to be a scientist. Even though my job is no longer based in the lab, I strongly identify with the community of researchers and have a deep appreciation of both the process of and knowledge obtained by science. And we all know what scientists are like – ruthlessly logical, posing hypotheses and slashing away with Occam’s Razor until we find a neat and rational solution.
Just hang on a minute. Scientists – logical? Don’t make me laugh. Despite my dedication to the cause of science, I am still woefully prone to flights of irrationality. And I’m not talking about falling for hokum on the scale that Ben Goldacre, Bad Science Detective, uncovers. I’m talking about the quirks and foibles that make us humans rather than automata. I believe my car has a temperament and am fearful of ghosts. I have lucky pants and salute magpies. When I worked in the lab, I had propitious pipettes and a superstition about never washing my white lab coat (oh, pity my poor benchmates). One of the finest researchers I know insists on using certain wells in the centrifuge to ensure experimental success. But does this make us bad scientists?
Human beings have a deep-seated need for myths – as spiritual comfort-blankets, as a means to explain the origins and working of the world, and as a form of cultural ‘glue’. Deep down, I knew that the choice between two identical pipettes had no bearing on the outcome of my experiments. But it helped to have something on which to blame my own screw-ups. In the same way, attributing a mechanical failure to my car’s malevolence doesn’t reflect reality, but does serve to make me feel better. We all have our own superstitions and I’d bet good money that every scientist in history has had an irrational quirk or ten.
But maybe it’s deeper than that. Do we actually need to believe in science to be able to do it? We don’t go back to the first principles of photons every time we peer down a microscope, or question the principles of chemistry with every DNA prep. But we believe that what we are studying are cells, proteins, DNA. I can’t even begin to count how many assumptions even the simplest modern experiment is built on, but we still believe that it will give us the "right" answer. And are all of these assumptions solid science? It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we’ll discover the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston.
Rationalists balk at the thought that science might be built on superstition. But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that science has more in common with that vast bastion of irrationality – religion – than it might like to acknowledge. In the past, people clung to religious explanations of the material world. Even today, we see Creationists at war with educators in the US, and phoney science masquerading as medicine.
Thomas Huxley, the man affectionately known as Darwin’s Bulldog, declaimed that "Science is a religion and its philosophers are the priests of nature." It ‘s easy to see the parallels between an academic scientific career and a religious one – a sense of cloistering oneself in the ivory tower, sacrificing the hefty pay-packet of industry and spending one’s time probing the secrets of the universe. One commentator describes scientists experiencing a "sense of ecstasy at the disclosure of nature’s secrets and a sense of the sublime in contemplating its works.", The cynic might even compare the fervour of American Creationists with the strident and vociferous atheism of Richard Dawkins.
Nietzsche once claimed that "All sciences today work for the destruction of man’s ancient self-respect", but it’s easy to see that that science is bringing us progress, benefits and a better life. Medicine has saved lives, computers have revolutionised our lives, and we are exploring further towards the infinite, whether that be the far reaches of the galaxies or the heart of the atom. Whatever science is, it is a powerful cultural narrative in its own right.
"Science is at no moment quite right, but it is seldom quite wrong, and has, as a rule, a better chance of being right than the theories of the unscientific."
- Bertrand Russell.