Science and Its Skeptics

The New Yorker:

Science has been taking a lot of punches lately. A recent cover story for The Economist argued, with cause, that “modern scientists have done too much trusting, and not enough verifying.” A few days ago, the science writer-provocateur John Horgan wrote a dark reflection, in Scientific American, on a litany of failures in science that he has seen over his thirty-year career. Reporting on an “archaeological dig into the strata” of his career, which he says justifies why he’s “so critical of science,” Horgan finds himself struck by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.

All of this is true. String theory hasn’t yet lived up to its promise (and may never). Complexity theory hasn’t, either. People still get cancer and the antidepressants known as S.S.R.I.s help far fewer people than the early hype suggested. The locution a “gene for X” is, in most cases, a verbal sloppiness that leads only to false expectations. Scientists, and those who would report on them, have sometimes promised more than they can deliver.

It is absolutely correct for onlookers to call for increased skepticism and clearer thinking in science writing. I’ve sometimes heard it said, with a certain amount of condescension, that this or that field of science “needs its popularizers.” But what science really needs is greater enthusiasm for those people who are willing to invest the time to try to sort the truth from hype and bring that to the public. Academic science does far too little to encourage such voices.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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