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Science Philosopher: Science World Beset by “Filters,” “Conformity,” “Hidebound” Thinking


How often have we heard the stale line about how science adores fresh thinking that topples past idols? Oh sure, we’re told, if there were anything of substance to the theory of intelligent design, some young maverick scientist would just love to make his mark by being the guy who knocked over Darwinism in favor of ID.

This familiar appeal to the myth of professional scientists as free thinkers receives a blow from philosopher of science Adrian Currie, writing for Aeon. Currie is not someone we’d heard of before, not an ID proponent. He’s not trying to insert himself in the Darwin debate. But man, his frank depiction sure rings a bell:

Nowadays scientists tend to shun the ‘maverick’ label. If you’ve hung out in a lab lately, you’ll notice that scientific researchers are often terrible gossips. Being labelled a ‘maverick’, a ‘crank’ or a ‘little bit crazy’ can be career-killing. The result is what the philosopher Huw Price at the University of Cambridge calls ‘reputation traps’: if an area of study gets a bad smell, a waft of the illegitimate, serious scientists won’t go anywhere near it.

Mavericks such as Newton, Buffon and Darwin operated in a very different time to our own. Theirs was the age of the ‘gentleman scholar’, in which research was pursued by a moneyed class with time to kill. Today, though, modern science encourages conformity. For a start, you need to get a degree to become a scientist of some stripe. You also need to publish, get peer-reviewed, obtain money from a funder, and find a job. These things all mould the young scientist: you aren’t just taught proper pipette technique, but also take on a kind of disciplinary worldview. The process of acculturation is part of what the philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn called a ‘paradigm’, a set of values, practices and basic concepts that scientists hold in common.

On top of this standardisation, careers in science are now extremely hard to come by. There’s a scarcity of jobs compared with the number of applicants, and very few high-ranking and ‘big impact’ journals. This means that the research decisions that scientists make, particularly early on, are high-risk wagers about what will be fruitful and lead to a decent career. The road to academic stardom (and, for that matter, academic mediocrity) is littered with brilliant, passionate people who simply made bad bets. In such an environment, researchers are bound to be conservative — with the stakes set so high, taking a punt on something outlandish, and that you know is likely to hurt your career, is not a winning move.

Of course, all these filters help to ensure that the science we read about is well-supported and reliable, compared with Darwin’s day. There’s much good in sharing a paradigm; it makes communication easier and helps knowledge accumulate from a common base. But professional training also involves learning how to convince colleagues in your field that your work is legitimate, that it meets their ideas of what the good questions are and what good answers look like. This makes science more productive, but less creative. Enquiries can become hidebound and unadventurous. As a result, truly revolutionary research — the domain of the maverick — is increasingly hard to pursue. [Emphasis added.]

Maybe he didn’t know anyone was listening, or at least anyone who would think to consider this candid admission in the context of the evolution controversy.

And remember, all his talk about “reputation traps,” “filters,” a sensitivity to “career killing” “bad smells,” a system set up to “encourage conformity,” ensuring “conservative,” “hidebound and unadventurous” thinking — all this is true when the maverick science that might be investigated or championed has no philosophical implications to it.

In the case of ID, the implications for your picture of reality are, naturally, enormous. So the institutional conservatism of science is really going to kick in and resist new thinking. As we know it does.

Image credit: Foundry, via Pixabay.