The Arrogance of Scientists

I just tried to listen to a BBC Front Row (nice radio programme about arts stuff, such as films, music etc) podcast on my Ipod. But Itunes or the BBC must have screwed up somewhere, because the 21st of August podcast of Inside Science plays instead of the listed 21st August (2014) podcast of Front Row. So I thought I’d listen to the Inside Science podcast, just in case this accidental mix up might turn out to be serendipitous in some way. It didn’t. Inside Science annoyed me instead. A minute in, and the chirpy science journalist sums up the whole episode as so:

History, epistemology, feminism and culture. It’s almost like a humanities degree on the programme today. But that’s science for you! It’s the language that underwrites everything else!

I’ll combine those last two lines for you, so you get the picture. I’ll SHOUT them too:


Really? What, absolutely everything???

Are you sure about that?

I wouldn’t say so! Maybe science has links with art, history, politics, philosophy etc etc, but I would in no way say that it underwrites them. It seems extremely arrogant to say such a thing. It is, ultimately, to argue that science is more important than philosophy, art, history etc. And, interestingly, I can’t imagine an artist, historian, or philosopher making such a claim about their own subject or area. They just wouldn’t tend to be so bold or arrogant.

Having myself studied for an MA and an MSC, and then going on to gain a PhD (Doctorate in Philosophy in Education), I met many academics from different backgrounds. In my experience, the academics who had backgrounds in the arts or humanities tended to have a breadth of knowledge. They also had humility, patience with students, and were willing to take on or empathise with views or arguments that were not their own. By contrast, I will remember the scientist academics for how they seemed proud or confident within the confines of their own practices or subject area. One senior scientist, for example, told a class of final year PhD students that he often screened out students for jobs if they hadn’t handed their PhD in on time. By late he meant even a week late. He said: ‘I don’t even read their application! I just throw it in the bin!’ Many students in that class were already a few months or a year behind schedule (which is normal for students who are trying to complete – better to do a good job rather than hurry it through), so his comments seemed quite heartless. There was a collective intake of breath, which the tutor didn’t even seem to hear. Another tutor from a science background talked to us students (many of us were from arts or humanities backgrounds) about qualitative and quantitative research methods. She described non-scientific research as ‘wooly minded’. Wow! No shit?! Another intake of breath!

The word ‘belligerent’ seems apt.

I know quite a few scientists. My sense is that it is quite easy for scientists to live inside, be immersed within, a world that emboldens and reinforces their scientific beliefs and values. Ergo, they can very easily come to believe that science is vital, central, even fundamental. Imagine being in a job that pays very good money, being surrounded by other like-minded people, and living a life where science underpins your work. I think that many scientists are characterised by this experience. Many of the scientists I know have been successful as science students from a very early age, and then follow that through into work and even retirement. In many ways, their feet never touch the ground, in the sense that they never experience a world beyond science. They don’t have to. In this sense, they are perhaps akin to priests, in that they can be cocooned within a belief system throughout their whole life.

As an arts/humanities person, I have jumped from job to job, have been unemployed for periods, have taken on diverse and often crap jobs. I think that this (itinerant?) kind of life is characteristic of arts/humanities people. And it breeds a less arrogant mentality.If you jump around from experience to experience, you inevitably experience different lives, take on different ways of thinking. It becomes harder to then believe, or be cocooned with, one reality, one metanarrative, as it were. Maybe.

Perhaps there’s the Aspergers thing with scientists too.

If my post gets read, or receives any feedback, I’m expecting some negativity and maybe even some personal attacks. That’s OK. I brought some negativity into this, so it only makes sense if it comes back to bite me.



About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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