Science Versus Scientism (Part 2)

Now that Scientism has been defined, and the specific example of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the context and truth of his claim that “attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science” has been examined, lets turn to examining what is “Science”, at least that version of “Science” that I have been taught and practiced for over forty years.

Merriam-Webster: science (noun) sci·​ence | ˈsī-ən(t)s

Definition of science

1a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena NATURAL SCIENCE

2a: a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study: the science of theology

b: something (such as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge: have it down to a science

3: a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws: cooking is both a science and an art


5: the state of knowing knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding

Personally, I prefer the point of view nicely summarized by Steve Savage

Science is a verb.”

In an allusion to the John Mayer song, “Love Is A Verb,” Dr. Cami Ryan noted that as with the word “Love,” “Science” is a legitimate noun. But in both cases, it is the action, the process, and the effort – the verb – that really matters.

Science is a verb in the sense that it is a method (activity) involving the making of hypotheses, the design of experiments and the analysis of data.  But a critical part of the scientific process is the conversation phase after the experimentation is done.  Scientists share their findings with the broader community through publications or presentations at meetings.  What happens next is a back-and-forth discussion including a critique of methods or interpretation, and a comparison with previous findings.

If there are flaws in the experimental design or interpretation, other scientists will point that out.  To participate in the conversation, scientists need to be willing to hear and respond to feedback. If there are conflicting results, it may require additional hypothesis making and experimentation.  Only when the conversation runs its course do the conclusions become a part of accepted scientific understanding.

A bit of personal background would probably be helpful here, as I suspect that my idiosyncratic sense of what is “Science” is probably quite different from what is taught in today’s textbooks. The mentor that really taught me the process of “doing science” (ergo, the verb) was basically a scientific ascetic, in that he was quite austere in manner, habits, and practice. Both an MD and a PhD, he was a practicing board certified Pathologist who was focused on breast cancer research, with training at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology back when that really meant something. I was just a Junior in college who thought that maybe I could get into Medical school (but not likely), but if not then becoming a bench scientist in the areas of Virology and Molecular Biology might be a pretty good fall back plan. I do not know why he took me in, but he did, and I worked at the bench in his laboratory every minute I could spare for two solid years.

Talk about a harsh taskmaster. Every week, during the group lab meeting, it was stand and deliver. What is the positive control, what is the negative control, what is the hypothesis, what are the findings, alternative findings, and what are the limitations. Week after week after week, surrounded by mature scientists, physicians, graduate students and lab technicians who were all much more experienced than I was. He still lives in my brain, and when I click into analytical scientist mode I have to restrain my inner asshole lest I end up unintentionally tearing an extra one for whomever I am interacting with. I have to be particularly careful when reviewing manuscripts, grants or contracts, lest I end up a scientific nihilist – nothing ever good enough. But from him I learned how to do rigorous scientific investigations, how to think about experimental design, how to interpret data, and how to punch holes in almost any research paper. That is my origin story as a scientist.

My mentor was particularly attuned to the nuances of scientific bias, and how that can so easily compromise scientific research and interpretation. For all my remaining years I will recall his admonition to avoid building hypotheses on sand rather than firm rock, just as I will never forget his looking me in the eye and telling me that he had no time for false modesty.

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