You DARE to Criticize SCIENCE?!

1998 William Beaty

Here is an attitude which I've encountered online repeatedly:
Science is extremely important. Also, it is a very fragile structure, and mankind always remains a few steps away from another dark age. Science is so fragile and easily destroyed that we must expend enormous and valiant efforts to defend it from the many attacks being launched by the hoards of ignorant and superstitious people who surround us on all sides. Anti- science sentiments are at an all-time high in modern society, and therefore we must fight fiercely against all who criticize science. We are engaged in a sort of war. In war, the propaganda of the enemy must be suppressed. In war, critical examination about 'our side' must be controlled, lest we give our enemies ammunition as well as an opportunity to damage us in the eyes of the public.

How many of us are Good Scientists? How many really take the above sentiments to heart? There are words for this sort of thing:






It has been my experience that if any person or group suppresses outside criticism, they provide a safe haven where unexamined error can take root and blossom. If people suppress self-criticism as well as group-criticism, then they open themselves to all sorts of pathological conceits and self-congratulatory narcissism. Humility goes out the window, and soon, without our even noticing it, an attitude of arrogance and unexamined self-superiority can take hold and become the norm within our group. Along with insecurity and denial will come our subconsciously-motivated attacks made upon anyone who dares to puncture our self-importance and to expose our genuine flaws. It's a kind of evil mental illness. Any group, even Science, can become its victim.

I see that the cure for this illness is simple. Science should always maintain a cycle of brutally honest self-examination and constructive self-criticism, then follow this up with major efforts at self-improvement. We must pursue the truth about ourselves, even if it's something we prefer not to know. There should be no need for any outsiders to point out the flaws in science. We should already be finding them ourselves. If we don't search out and confront our chronic flaws, then we'll surely fall into denial, and we'll exhibit defensiveness and explosions of rage whenever outsiders begin to discuss the obvious flaws which we so desperately deny.

If supporters of Science and Reason refuse to search out and confront the flaws in modern science, or even deny that any exist, then we run the risk of ending up as insecure neurotics who angrily cover up the existence of our every error, while simultaneously perceiving enemies on all sides who threaten to penetrate our thin, dishonest facade. I believe that too many supporters of science would readily agree with the first paragraph of this article already. This is a symptom which indicates a group having a mental illness.

Science is not strengthened by attempts to silence its critics. Science is not strengthened by our attempts to hide it's embarrassing limitations. Real strength comes through fighting humiliation with humility, by treating criticism like pieces of gold, and by using the attacks of our 'vile enemies' as a base for critical self examination and necessary future improvements.

We should neither defend science too vigorously, nor spare it from our own criticism. Rather we must do the opposite: seek out the problems in science and honestly display them for all to see. We should suppress our natural defensiveness, confer with our so-called enemies, and make genuine efforts to view ourselves from their viewpoint. All humans are plagued with a dishonest tendency to hide personal flaws. Scientists should fight against this tendency, and should strive to avoid the various twisted and self-serving mindgames that the tendency creates. Rather than courting dishonesty in order to avoid embarassment, we should court embarassment in our pursuit of stark, painful, critical, self-honesty. We should admit to the failings of science, search out its denied flaws, and examine its most embarrassing blunders in excruciating detail. AND THEN FIX IT SO THESE THINGS OCCUR LESS OFTEN!
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