I’ve written before about the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists. These kind of differences are essential to make if you want your arguments make sense. Confusing science and scientists is like confusing biology and a medical doctor – it’s stupid. Making these kinds of mistakes ends up letting one prove things like 1 = 2 and that the moon is made of blue cheese and that murder is perfectly acceptable.
Here’s an example. In a recent post, Jerry Coyne quotes Jackson Lears as the latter tries – and fails miserably – to dissemble the work of Sam Harris. Lears wrote: “To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science.”
No, Mr. Lears, you are wrong. Science is what it is, regardless of how poorly humans may undertake it. Science is a process of iteratively improving one’s understanding of things by making observations, developing predictive theories that explain those observations, and then making more observations to either verify or falsify those theories. Every single human on earth uses this basic approach to learn. We use it to learn how to ride a bicycle, how to find the fastest route home from work, how to negotiate social situations, and how to play poker. Even Jackson Lears uses science.
Science is what it is.
Scientists, on the other hand, are fallible human beings. Scientists make mistakes. But that’s not bad, because we only learn from our mistakes. And that’s why replication of experiments is so fundamental to science: it weeds out the mistakes. Science is, overall, self-correcting, because scientists, more than anyone else, know they make mistakes.
So here comes Jackson Lears, a professor of history for crying out loud, telling us that science cannot be trusted because scientists make mistakes. Wow. Does that mean penicillin is bad medicine because doctors can make mistakes? Is mathematics wrong because a mathematician makes a mistake? Of course not. This kind of ridiculous reasoning is the type you expect from freshmen who party too much.
Jackson Lears is a fountain of childish prattle. He is categorically, utterly, and totally wrong.