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David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

True, there is an ethos of honesty in science which we can be proud of and attempt to adhere to. But we know that scientists are just as human as anyone else. They certainly are as susceptible as others to human failings. And this includes not only pride and personal ambition but also subjectivity, blinkered views, bias and even superstition.

Maybe in the past there was this public picture of the noble scientist but we now live in a more more sensible age. Biographies of scientists are no longer hagiographies. Anyone who has read a recent biography will be aware of how unpleasant Newton was personally. Of Albert Einstein’s treatment of his first wife and their fist child. Of Madame Curies’ affair. No, these heroes of science were real people, not the idealised noble scientist.

Some biographies will even discuss the scientific mistakes of these great scientists. Although, I personally think more should be made of these as they would help us understand the real processes that go on in scientific discovery.

Media beat ups, like the “climategate” concentration on stolen scientist emails, have also revealed how human, and even petty, scientists can be. And the recent news of scientific misconduct by Marc D. Hauser has exposed another, unpleasant, side of human failings (see Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement and Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes).

Human scientists but noble science

But scientists do evoke the image of trust – if you believe advertisements for cleaning products and cosmetics. How often have we seen white lab coats used in such ads. But I think this reputation comes more from the nature of science itself, rather than the scientist. After all, we know from experience that science is capable of delivering. We all depend on this reliability of science in our everyday lives.

This reliability comes from the scientific method – not from the character of individual scientists. Taken in isolation humans rely on pattern recognition. They also rely on brain processes which create our own version of reality. Rather than “seeing is believing” we are often confronted more with “believing is seeing.” It is only human to unconsciously select the information which fits with our preconceived views. To seek confirmation for our own biases.

This may have been a result of our evolution and has probably served us well in our attempts to survive and reproduce. But this approach is not a good basis for truly investigating and understanding reality. They are not a good basis for doing science. And we can certainly see the influence of subjective attitudes, protection of pet ideas, cultural and religious influences, etc., when we look at the history of science.

Modern science has developed methodologies to minimise subjective influences. One is the importance we now place on interaction with reality. On collection of evidence and the testing of any resulting hypotheses and theories against reality. Scientific theories are validated both by testing against reality and by their use in subsequent investigations and technological appliances.

The social nature of science also helps. Ideas and theories must be open to sceptical consideration of peers in the process of collaborative research, funding applications, conference presentations and scientific publications.

Scientific knowledge is progressive – it generally improves with time. This means that mistakes, and scientific frauds, do not remain undiscovered.  Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Ambitious scientists are eager to expose such mistakes. Science really is self-correcting. Irrespective of the human failings of individual scientists.

The noble scientist as a straw man

Scientists themselves have no illusions. After all they experience the human side of their colleagues all the time. I don’t know about the perception of the person in the street but suspect that the image of noble scientist would not be common in these cynical times. Personally, the only time I come across this myth is when it is used as a straw man by those who are critcising science or denying certain scientific findings.

You know. When confronted with scientific features they wish to reject the climate change or evolution denier will sometimes justify their rejection by arguing that scientists are not objective. That scientific fraud is common. The “scientific establishment” controls peer review. Or that science can’t escape from its cultural prejudices. Some theological critics of science fall back on the bias of the so-called “materialistic” or “naturalistic” “paradigm” in science.

They will accuse those they are debating with of having an idealised, fictional concept of the objective, honest scientist. The noble scientist.

A debating ploy, but one that really avoids the issue. And that is probably why it is used. They should be dealing with, and possibly critiquing if they can, the actual scientific evidence and its interpretation. Not the all too human individual scientist.

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