Friday, February 18, 2011

Science---really? Give me a break!

Of late, I have been increasingly amazed at the number of folks publishing in our journals making blanket statements about "doing" science and then using that pulpit to outright put down what they consider to be lay public opinion. In these instances, the language of science is being used to silence opinions that are contradictory to the status quo that our so-called communication scientists serve. The scientific terminology becomes a mechanism to silence and erase, a way to fundamentally ask people to "believe" without questioning because that happens to be the recommendations of these "high priests and priestesses" who have dominated knowledge for centuries. Much like the Church, they want us to take them at face value, and don't really care to offer backing and warrants in their arguments. Many of the arguments go like this, "anyone questioning a behavior (say immunization) must be unscientific because the behavior (say immunization) is scientific."

The interesting part is that the folks who are making the arguments are not scientists themselves, they belong to a breed called "social scientists" who are first and foremost by arguments of expertise not qualified to make scientific claims (for instance, my colleagues making claims about immunizations as scientific are communication scholars and mostly have no clue about the debates about immunization in the medical literature, and therefore, don't really have any expertise base whatsoever to make these claims)...In other words, social scientists are anything but scientists although some of them making these grand claims would like us to believe as such. They would like us to give them the credibility of scientists because they can "huff and puff" about how their work is scientific (note the pattern of claims and then supporting those claims by additional heuristics about how these claims are scientific). The part that is ironic in this huffing and puffing is the fundamental misunderstanding among this breed that the process of scientific knowledge production is one of critique, of refutation and questioning, not one of blind faith. You can't blame them though as many of these folks came into the social sciences by virtue of avoiding the sciences in their undergrad coursework as these were the tough courses.

The high priests and priestesses in the social sciences that want us to simply believe them in the face value are perhaps so desperate because they are struggling to be credible, they want us to believe in them and give them the time of our day because they have some sort of inferiority complex, knowing fully well that often they really are not qualified to make arguments in the same ways as say physical scientists are qualified to do (and this is precisely where the problem starts to begin with, that the social sciences "begin" by setting themselves up to be like the physical sciences). What they don't realize is that credibility is established not through posturing or through demagoguery or through pretending to be superior, but fundamentally through the openness to being questioned, to being vulnerable, to being corrected, to laying one's claims to knowledge open to questioning, irrespective of who it is that is asking the questions (communication scientists of course wouldn't know that as they have, myself included, been brought up in the culture of posthoc explanations and discussion sections explaining away results of all forms and varieties).

If everyday folks, the ones that are discarded by this breed of PhDs, are raising questions, I say: open up the gates of questioning. Before you use the language of science to silence someone who hasn't had your privilege (of going to College and earning a PHD), spend time reading the works of scientists who came from amidst the most underprivileged settings and learn from them. Remember, some of the best scientists were not produced through bureaucracies minting out PhDs, but through processes of questioning and interrogation. So if Science truly means something to you, forget the posturing and the rogue claims, and come to the table with openness to learn from others, with humility, to be taught outside the boxes that have turned you more into methodological drones than thinkers. Most importantly, learn to think!


Howard Sypher said...

It strikes me that good science has always been about observing the world with eyes and mind wide open... Critical evaluation and rigorous thought are at the core but I think an appreciation for the the simple... and the complex... and the beautiful nature of the world and the phenomenon we study is also needed. And yes, a little humility is certainly in order.

Mohan J. Dutta said...

How beautiful Howard! I love what you said about appreciating the simple and the complex and the beautiful nature of the world. And perhaps, opening this world up to others who have traditionally been silenced, so that they can also participate in sharing their understandings...