Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 15, 2002

More and Different For Sale

Within the framework of the objective scientific method, scientists do not sell their credibility. It is completely irrelevant to mankind's understanding of classical physics that Isaac Newton may have cooked (or "adjusted") some of his lunar orbit data. Nor to the extent such topics constitute science does our understanding of relativity depend on anything Albert Einstein may have done or thought, nor does our understanding of radioactive decay stand or fall on what Marie Curie thought she was doing, nor is our scientific understanding of quantum mechanics dependent on Werner Heisenberg's thought processes or credibility. Science does not "trust" Newton, Einstein, Curie, Heisenberg or any other scientist for their findings - the whole point of science is to check out and repeat what an individual scientist says he or she has found, discovered or invented.

Scientists first and foremost "sell" ideas - and, in the end, only their ideas matter to humanity and objective science.

But that doesn't mean that scientists lose their subjective human characteristics or their need to function in human groups and organizations or their need to obtain real assets to do research (money, equipment, colleagues, assistants, time). For example, if one is a practicing research scientist in a developing field, the credibility of another scientist will be very important in certain personal, career related ways. For example, if a credible scientist reports a surprising result, one will be more likely to divert one's time and energy to investigate that result than if the result came from an unreliable scientist. And credibility plus important results often leads to political power and/or influence in the scientific and academic communities.

In short: Individual credibility is ultimately not a concept very important to scientific knowledge, but is far more germane to issues concerning the political structure and asset deployments of the scientific community.

To the extent a belief structure comes to rest on credibility of some prominent person - Freud, for example, in the case of psychoanalysis, or Mao, Marx and Lenin in the case of communism - the belief system becomes more religious than scientific in nature.

To the extent one focuses on the political and organizational aspects of science one becomes more of a scientific administrator than a scientist. Scientific administrators are immensely valuable to science - and can advance the cause of objective science hugely. Felix Klein, for example, more or less abandoned mathematics to concentrate on being a scientific administrator of an institute in Göttingen, Germany which revolutionized mathematics and physics.

But scientific administrators are valuable to society only to the extent they help advance scientific knowledge. A scientific administrator who does not understand that scientists first and foremost "sell" ideas is way off track. A scientist who does not understand only his or her ideas matter to science is not likely to be a very good scientist.

In certain respects scientists have a lot in common with political commentators. James Carville and William Safire, for example, are not a reporters. Mr. Safire has accurately described himself as a professional mind bender, a term that also applies to Mr. Carville: someone who invents or draws one's attention to arguments and rhetorical devices to be used in the political arena. Their main contribution is not their "credibility," although it is important that they be accurate in reporting whatever facts underlie their ideas. Such arguments and devices either work or they don't. For example, somebody came up with the idea of re-christening the "estate tax' the "death tax." I hope the Republicans paid that person well. But whether the rhetorical device of referring to the "death tax" in speeches is politically effective or not - that is, whether this rhetorical device is a good idea - does not depend on its author's "credibility." Mickey Kaus is also not a reporter, but neither is he a "mind bender" - he is a self-renewing source of fresh, topical ideas. But those ideas either work or they don't. Mickey Kaus, too, does not for the most part traffic in his "credibility" - he traffics in his ideas.

One might imagine that a person who purports to be a scientist but who has had extensive political experience would understand the interplay and separateness of personal credibility and objective ideas, and would be unlikely to say of another commentator that he has every incentive not to burn his credibility-- it is, after all, the only thing he has to sell.

But I agree that people should Google their facts since its so easy.

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