Yes, scientists can be jerks, but that doesn’t invalidate science

Via Pure Pedantry, I’ve become aware of a post that resonates over here, given the recent series of posts I did about a certain comic who, unable to dispute the science behind global warming or the health hazards of secondhand smoke in any serious way, has a penchant for labeling scientists who support such positions and think that indoor smoking should be banned as fascists (or Maoist), power hungry, bureaucrats who don’t view people as individuals, geeks who got beat up on the dodgeball court and are now taking their revenge, or avid players of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons who now think they can play any role in real life.

In the post John over at Chicago Boyz makes the point that, yes, a lot of scientists are jerks, but that doesn’t invalidate science. I’m not sure I would go quite as far as he does, but here’s his point:

The scientific method is a mechanism for the evolution of thought. Evolution depends on conflict and stuggle as its motive engine. Conflict requires competitive personalities. Those personalities are not always the easiest to deal with. QED, most good scientists are jackasses.

I don’t think I’d agree that “most” or “most good” scientists are jackasses, but it is true that a sometimes distressing number of them are. The same can be said of many surgeons. Science is a competitive field, in essence intellectual competition between competing hypotheses, and if a scientist wants to convince others of the correctness of his or her ideas, the only support available includes the evidence (most important) and the ability of the scientist to persuade fellow scientists that the evidence supports his or her ideas. John concludes:

I’m the first to admit that most scientists are egotistical jackasses, more so than they need to be. However, every scientist needs to be a jackass to a certain degree. Everyone wants to be the maverick that comes up with a novel application of existing knowledge, or overturns conventional wisdom and wins everlasting glory. The progress of science depends on the majority of us being jackasses so that we can overcome biases. It’s an evolutionary system in action, and without external stimulus or competition, the stronger ideas, the ones that more closely model reality, do not beat out the weaker ones. Groupthink wins and we enter a new Dark Age.

Yes and no. If we’re going to continue with the evolution analogy, just as there are many strategies for evolutionary success in biology, there are also many strategies for success in science. Not all of them including being an overbearing asshole. (In fact, I would argue that, while some do, most do not.) In biology, other strategies for success include cooperation, altruism, and various other strategies that organisms also use in evolution, and so it is in science, too. In other words, you don’t have to be a jerk to succeed, and sometimes it’s even harmful to one’s scientific career. It’s painting with way too broad a brush to label the vast majority of scientists to be egotistical, overbearing, jackasses.

This brings us around to the “skepticism” about global warming and secondhand smoke that we’ve been dealing with here for the last month or so. Even if every caricature of scientists presented over the last month were true, even if we were all geeks seeking revenge for childhood indignities heaped upon us, power-hungry fascists wanting to impose our will on society, or cold, impersonal bureaucrats who do not see people as individuals but rather as experimental objects to manipulate, like lab animals, it would not invalidate what science says. That’s because of the scientific method and the scientific process, as Jake points out:

My argument is that whether or not I like the guy who made gathered the data, I trust the scientific process enough to produce data that is reliable. This trust is justified because the scientific process is so competitive that even if you do cheat or lie about your data is unlikely that is going to remain secret for long. The more controversial a subject is the more likely that someone is going to check your data, largely because the professional benefits of showing that the prevailing wisdom is wrong are so high.

Let’s look at it this way. There are a number of surgeons whom I personally view as arrogant clods and would never want to hang out with socially. Many of these same surgeons are simply fantastically talented individuals, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go to them if I had a surgical problem that was within their area of expertise, my opinion of their personality notwithstanding. The same is true of scientists. How nice a person you are is not necessarily correlated with how good a scientist you are, nor do the personalities found in scientists as a group invalidate science. If you’re going to argue against a scientific consensus such as anthropogenic global warming or the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke, you have to do it with scientific arguments and evidence, not commentary on the personality defects, whether real or imagined, of scientists if you want to be taken seriously.