Yesterday, I re-twitted @markwhiting who wrote, “So many academic papers should not have been published.” Several people commented that they liked the posting. This made me think about scientific writing and its value in the society. What I do for my living is scientific writing. I do research in order to write. I communicate my findings through writing and teaching. People often listen to what I have to say, read what I write, and even pay me for what I am doing (perhaps for what I know).
When one looks at the history of science, it is very clear that the science occupies a very special place in the discourse in our society. We — those who do academic (or scientific) writing — are given a privileged voice in the contemporary society. Just as in the medieval age when priests could invoke the name of God in order to settle disputes, we can say to laypeople “in the name of science”. People do listen to what we say and what we write, not because of who we are and what we do, but because we draw on the authority of science in saying what we say. In the same way that priests had certain aura of authority in the past, “scientists” in today’s have certain sense of authority in all aspects of life. From N1H1 virus, to the design of new airplane that needs to be tested, to the safety of cereals we eat in the morning, to the forensic evidence used to convict someone as a murderer, science often has the last word.
Yet, precisely what is it that we do as science remain largely mysterious to many people. Popper’s notion of falsification as the basis of science in this sense is very important and intriguing in this context. Reacting to the predominance of logical positivism, Popper begins with the limitations of empiricism and the logic of induction (particularly the issue of universal knowledge). Thus, the idea of falsification denies the complete “knowability” of Truth (with a big T), pointing out all human scientific knowledge is temporary and falsifiable. So, unlike other forms of claim, scientific claim acknowledges its limit and use it as the basis of its value. The very fact that it can be falsified creates never-ending opportunity to advance humanity into the domain where we’ve never been to.
So, coming back to my tweet and my own sense of value of what I do, what I do is valuable not only because I am right, but also because I know and acknowledge that I can be wrong. In that sense, science can never replace religion or old tradition, which gained their power precisely out ofunshakable commitment to believe that they are right. Of course, I see many scientists today who think their values are based on what they know to be right, which makes them no more than contemporary equivalent of shamans. And, I see lots of them.