Mailvox: No True Scientist?

A hard scientist casts a skeptical eye on those outside her discipline:

You’ll find this quite interesting. It’s in line with your assertions about corruption in the sciences. However, you’re making an error to apply charges of significant corruption and professional laziness to all of science. Perhaps you are in possession of evidence of which I’m not aware*, but based on what I know you’re committing the same error as atheists when they make blanket assertions about atheists vs. religious people. As you have pointed out many times, there are important distinctions within these groups. Likewise, there are important distinctions within the sciences. No field of science is free of flaws, but I have good evidence that corruption is significantly lower in physics and its sub-fields, and that research proceeds as well as can be expected for any human endeavor. I strongly suspect the increase in retractions noted by Nature traces the increased and alarming politicization of some specific fields, namely biology, medicine (including psychiatry/psychology), and climate science.

It’s important to draw a distinction between the different sciences, because developments in physics and even chemistry actually demonstrate that these fields are relatively healthy. Several discoveries in this year alone show that physicists are quite willing to abandon cherished ideas (after only a modest degree of initial resistance) in the face of new data. Also, look at the Nobel prizes announced for physics and chemistry. Both were for experiments that overturned accepted ideas, and in both cases it was only a few years to go from discovery to implementation. That’s unprecedented in other sciences.

There is no question that physics has been the gold standard of science since Isaac Newton. And I’m under no illusion that all science is created equally or that fraud pervades all of it to an equal degree. It hasn’t escaped me, after all, that Daniel Dennett and others have attempted to justify their belief in the predictions of biologists by appealing to the accuracy of predictions by physicists, which is about as sensible as claiming that one should believe psychics due to the accuracy of predictions by economists.

And the response of the physics community to the news of the superluminal neutrinos has been encouraging to those who are accustomed to witnessing very different behavior from scientists in other, softer fields. Moderate skepticism and an expectation that the experiment will be independently replicated before the existing theories are considered to be overturned is entirely reasonable and very different than the way biologists and climatologists have regarded theoretical upheavals in their scientific fields.

The division between hard science and soft science is perhaps better described as the difference between actual science and non-science designed to look like the real thing.