Our society holds scientists in high esteem. When scientists say something — whether it’s about the composition of matter, the beginning of the universe, or who would win a fight between a giant gorilla and a T. Rex — we all sit up and listen. And it doesn’t matter if they say something that sounds completely ridiculous; as long as a statement is preceded with “scientists say,” we assume it is truth.
There’s just one problem with that: There are no such things as scientists.
Okay, you’re probably saying, “What? Scientists are real! I’ve seen them before! There’s even a famous, blurry photo of a man in a lab coat walking through the woods.” Well, yes, there are people known as scientists and who call themselves such, but the word is pretty much meaningless.
What is a scientist? It’s some guy who works in scientific research. That’s it. Scientist isn’t like some official title. There isn’t an International White Lab Coat Authority which only hands out white coats to people who pass rigorous tests and then monitors these people to make sure their methods remain sound.
I want you to do something right now. Find a book. Hold it over the floor. Now release it. Write down what you observe.
Boom! You’ve just become a scientist. Congratulations. Because a scientist is basically anyone.
Again, I’ll bet you’re protesting. “Scientists aren’t just anyone! They’re people who have used science to give us great things, like lasers and computers and seedless watermelons!” Yes, some people have used science to do some remarkable accomplishments… but how many of the people who go by the name “scientist” have actually done anything practical? How many are nearing the cure for cancer, versus how many are those idiots who tell us for years that some food causes cancer and then suddenly say the food prevents cancer? How many scientists help society, and how many are just throwing out noise and filling up AP copy?
You don’t know. This is something you should know — especially if you want to put meaning behind the word “scientist” — but you don’t. Not only that, but think of the most famous living scientists. Like Stephen Hawking. I mean, everyone has heard of him. He has to be an outstanding scientist doing useful things, right? Well, do you have evidence of that? What has Stephen Hawking’s science led to? Maybe one day it will help us make a warp drive or something, but if I said, “Stephen Hawking is a complete and utter fraud. Everything he says is nonsense,” would you have any way to prove me right or wrong? Hawking’s stuff is all far out theory built upon more far out theory. What are you going to do? Blow up a black hole and demonstrate that he’s wrong?
Which brings us back to our problem. So much of science these days seems to be built on faith — faith being something that doesn’t have anything to do with science. Yet everyone apparently has faith that all these scientists we hear about follow good methods and are smart and logical and unbiased — when we can’t actually know any of that. So often news articles contain phrases such as, “scientists say,” “scientists have proven,” “scientists agree” — and people treat those phrases like they mean something by themselves, when they don’t mean anything at all. It’s like if you wanted music for your wedding, and someone came up to you and said, “I know a guy. He’s a musician.”
“What instrument does he play?”
“He’s a musician.”
“Is he any good?”
“He’s a musician.”
You see, when other occupations are vaguely described, we know to ask questions, but because we have blind faith in science, such reason is lost when we hear the term “scientist.” Which is why I’m arguing that for the sake of better scientific understanding, we should get rid of the word and simply replace it with “some guy.”
Here’s how articles written about science should read in the future: “Some guys say there’s oil on Titan.” “Some guy has some new ideas on the effects of cholesterol on the human body.” “97% of some guys believe global warming is manmade.” Now, if you saw similar phrases in an article, what would your reaction be? You’d say things like, “Who are these guys?” and “Why should I listen to them?” and “Have they done anything in the past that demonstrates they have any idea what they’re talking about?” All of these questions, by the way, are ones you should have been asking about scientists, but we just don’t think to do that since we assume the word means something… which just demonstrates how much smarter and more reasoning we’ll become when we get rid of that loaded term.
Now all of this isn’t meant to belittle science, which is a great process by which we discover facts about the world around us; you should probably make use of it yourself. This is, though, meant to belittle scientists, who are just people, and if you’ve ever been around people, you know they’re easily biased and prone to arrogance and error, and thus everything they say should be taken with a grain of salt. No one should magically be given our trust just because the word “scientist” is used to describe him; you either demonstrate through results that we should listen to you on a subject, or you’re just another guy saying possibly crazy things.
So the next time someone called a “scientist” comes up to you and tells you about some amazing thing he’s discovered, don’t just turn around and repeat it to others like it’s the gospel truth. Instead, treat it like you would if some guy you don’t know came up and said something unbelievable. Just say, “That’s really interesting,” and then pat the scientist on the head. And who knows? Maybe that scientist has discovered a great new truth about the universe that will lead to advances for mankind.
But probably not.
Earlier: “We Are All Scientists,” explained Rand Simberg.