The language of secret science

Current events show clearly that science can come under fire from many different angles: politics, religion and scaremongering media outlets. But does that mean it should become more obfuscatory, and hide behind a veil of secrecy to avoid the mudslingers? It would appear that someone over at Betterhumans thinks it should. Let’s snip a little quotelet:

“Which brings me to my point, that science and research need to be carried on with a moderate amount of secrecy to keep it slightly beyond the reach of neurotics, professional malcontents, scandalmongers, and political agents. As I see it this will help protect unmistakeably beneficial advances such as in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering until they can be applied effecively.”

OK, I can see where he’s going with this. The sheer volume if misinformed inventive that flies around any ethically-charged scientific endeavour certainly doesn’t help the public’s perception of it – which in some cases may be the entire purpose of it. The example that got this fellow thinking about this subject was the recent recovery of Neanderthal DNA, and hence the potential of cloning it and bringing our ancestors back to life. I think that’s currently an unlikely scenario, even for the most rampant science-for-science’s-sake advocates, but admittedly plausible. And he’s right in saying that the wailing and gnashing of ethical teeth over such a project would certainly compromise the likelihood of it actually being performed.

But to advocate a doctrine of secrecy in scientific research, to deliberately obscure its inner workings from the average man and the media at large? Not only foolish (and virtually impossible to achieve in this digital age), but utterly contrary to the entire methodology of science, and extremely likely to make the public opinion turn against it far more than it is already.

So, the foolishness first. The proposed smoke-screen in the Betterhumans post is to enforce the use of a different language in scientific papers and journals, preferably a ‘manufactured’ language like Esperanto. There is an analogy drawn to the use of Latin as the language of the educated in Western Europe, to keep knowledge out of reach of proles who would only misunderstand or misuse it. Just how much does this reek of contempt for non-scientists? If you think Joe Public views science as an elitist closed-shop at the moment, a shadowy collective of Frankensteins hell-bent on bringing doom and destruction to the human race, how in hell’s name is this going to improve the situation?

And it’s not as if writing science papers in a different language is going to keep determined media snoopers away for very long – after all, there are ways and means of getting round the language gap, thanks to these here intarwebs. This idea would actually predispose all media, and the public too, towards finding the worst and most nefarious scenarios that they possibly could from material that they don’t completely comprehend, and to using said uncovered info to expose the now-hidden processes of science as the sinister and occult process it would surely be considered to be.

Now, the methodology. I can imagine any true scientist reading that piece to instantly start foaming at the mouth – witness the fury of the science community over the falsified evidence in the South Korean cloning scandal. I read a fair few science blogs, written by people whose jobs (and indeed passions) are entirely based in scientific fields of various types. And what unites them all, whatever disparate politics and specialisations they may subscribe to, is a complete and utter faith in the validity and strength of the scientific method. I will admit that I think science as a whole occasionally practices selective blindness over what it chooses to research into and experiment on, but that is merely the inevitable peer pressure of any long-running ideological hegemony, and it’s a far less rife problem than the blindnesses of religion or politics. The method, however, is always consistent, and scientists are swift to debunk those they perceive as not following it rigourously.

Scientific progress is based on the gradual accumulation of data, not by one person or a small team working in isolation, but by a global community of people working to uncover the ways in which our world, nay, our universe functions. Experimental results are the key to progress, and their documentation is vital. A theory expounded by one researcher will be tested by others, who will attempt to reproduce the results of the initial investigation. One a few teams start getting the same results, the system starts to work, and consensus can be achieved – eventually theories become concrete things, accepted and validated by experiment and enquiry.

One doesn’t invent a new scientific law – one posits it, attempts to disprove it, and then shares the results with the community at large, a process referred to as ‘peer review’. And this is where a common misconception held by the public and a great deal of the media comes to light. How many times have you read a headline that says something like, “Scientists prove light can move faster than the speed of light”? Let me make this absolutely clear, as it was something drummed into me by a science teacher from my youth who considered it his foremost duty to never show science to be something it is not:

Science cannot be said to prove anything.

What it can claim is to have amassed enough evidence for the correct function of a formula or law, so that said formula or law can be treated as a best working model of the situation under investigation. Isaac Newton didn’t prove that gravity pulled apocryphal apples toward the ground. What he did was to develop a set of formulas that described how that process seemed to work, a model of function that was testably superior to other formulations, and one that stood up to a variety of experiments in the real world. Scientists now believe that Newton’s physics, indeed even Einstein’s physics, are not as complete or correct as originally assumed. But they haven’t proven that, and indeed they never will. Science is not about proof – leave that to lawyers (who in many ways could be considered to be far less interested in truth than scientists). Science is about evidence.

To hide the scientific process, to conceal this careful accumulation of evidence from the public because of fears over how it might be reacted to, is a proposition that, as far as I am concerned, has no merits whatsoever. It would work against the cause of science that the Betterhumans poster claims to want to defend. I agree fully that public perceptions of science are misinformed at best, and a worst belligerant and ignorant in the extreme. But I completely refute the notion that concealing the processes of science would make its course smoother.

Of course, if the guy could show me some proof of his theory, I might be inclined to change my mind… 😉

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