On Being a Scientist

Joshua Fost

 

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

—William Shakespeare

“I am a scientist, and I am also a Christian,” said the man. “And I am offended! Personally and deeply offended that you would characterize my beliefs as delusional.”

Thus began the question and answer part of the evening.

A colleague and I had been invited to speak at a gathering of a professional science society. The audience consisted mostly of tenured science faculty from local universities. Our talk had been advertised under the heading “Science and Pseudoscience,” because we both teach a philosophy course with that title and share a passion for the public understanding of evidence and reasoning.

The offended speaker proceeded to relay an anecdote: his son had been diagnosed with a disease (I can’t recall which) and had suffered for some years. The doctors tried to help him, but treatments were ineffective. Then a church group performed a “laying on of hands” ceremony, and the son was miraculously cured. Later the man’s wife, also suffering from something resistant to medical treatment, became the subject of a laying on of hands, and she too was miraculously cured.

Anyone even passingly acquainted with the claims of alternative medicine will find the overall thrust of our exchange quite familiar. The evidence that supporters give in defense of faith healing is almost always anecdotal. There is no mention of the possibility of an erroneous initial diagnosis, no acknowledgment of spontaneous resolution or of the placebo effect (on the part of either the patient or the observer, whose high hopes for remission can influence perceptions of an ongoing condition). There is no concern for any relevant controlled experiments; indeed, a large study demonstrating the impotence of intercessory prayer was brought to this man’s attention, and he reacted as if it were irrelevant. After all, he had seen the power of faith with his own eyes.

Yes, this was almost a caricature. The man committed, and vigorously defended, nearly every applicable fallacy and epistemological failure: appeal to authority, appeal to consequences, appeal to emotion, and on and on. Readers of this publication will spot all of them easily.

But a tutorial on such matters is not my purpose here. Notice again the beginning of his statement: “I am a scientist.” This connotes a second, implicit claim: “Because I am employed as a scientist and I believe in faith healing, the claims of science and those of faith are compatible.” This sort of claim is never stated outright, but I have encountered it many times. It is often extended to the professional population as a whole: “There are many religious scientists; therefore, science and religion are compatible, QED.” When people haul out the ad authoritatem chestnut that Albert Einstein believed x (which is of course hardly ever the case anyway), therefore x is true, they are making the same move. The only way this strategy could succeed is if it were impossible for a human being ever to be mistaken or to hold inconsistent views.

The troubling and ubiquitous verb “to be” has many uses. Alfred Korzybski called this particular use of it the “is of identity” and warned of its often pernicious application. What I said to the man, and what I want to say here, is that we ought to dispense with the notion of “being” a scientist. One may be trained in the sciences, one may be employed as a scientist, one may have published works of science, one may even have won a Nobel Prize for scientific achievement. But the epistemological strictures of scientific inquiry care nothing for our personal histories, our occupations, or our accolades. All that matters is that we approach each new claim maximally attentive to the possibility, if not the likelihood, that our biases and peccadillos will lead us astray. In this instance the questioner, his “identity” notwithstanding, approached a claim unscientifically, and the lapse led him into what is almost certainly a false belief.

Perhaps I should not be astonished that an established science educator would fail so catastrophically at extending the lessons of critical inquiry beyond the domain of his technical training. I knew a cognitive scientist who was a young-Earth creationist, a mechanical engineer who thought the Apollo moon landings were faked, and an indeterminate number of neuroscientists who believe in contracausal free will. By virtue of their achievements and positions these people have presumably demonstrated domain-specific competence. What troubles me most, as a professor, is that we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner in which science training is so content-focused, so hyper-specific, that people can get PhDs while having absolutely no understanding of the sweep and import of science’s broader utility and purpose.

The wayward questioner that evening mistook the domain of his responsibility as being more specific than it really is. Science is neither a trade nor a way of investigating just those questions that arise in laboratories. We need our scientists—and, for that matter, everyone else, as part of their general education—to regard science as the cognitive stance we must take when we interact with objective reality. This man’s failure to appreciate the weakness of his claim demonstrated professional and disciplinary incompetence just as surely as if he’d said the earth was flat.

 

Joshua Fost

Joshua Fost is in the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University, Oregon.


  For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. —William Shakespeare “I am a scientist, and I am also a Christian,” said the man. “And I am offended! Personally and deeply offended that you would characterize my beliefs as delusional.” Thus began the question and answer part …

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