What makes science science? The pious answers are: its ceaseless curiosity in the face of mystery, its keen edge of experimental objectivity, its endless accumulation of new data, and the cool machines it uses. We stare, the scientists see; we gawk, they gaze. We guess; they know.
But there are revisionist scholars who question the role of scientists as magi. Think how much we take on faith, even with those wonders of science that seem open to the non-specialist’s eye. The proliferation of hominids—all those near-men and proto-men and half-apes found in the fossil record, exactly as Darwin predicted—rests on the interpretation of a few blackened Serengeti mandibles that it would take a lifetime’s training to really evaluate. (And those who have put in the time end up squabbling anyway.)
Worse, small hints of what seems like scamming reach even us believers. Every few weeks or so, in the Science Times, we find out that some basic question of the universe has now been answered—but why, we wonder, weren’t we told about the puzzle until after it was solved? Results announced as certain turn out to be hard to replicate. Triumphs look retrospectively engineered. This has led revisionist historians and philosophers to suggest that science is a kind of scam—a socially agreed-on fiction no more empirically grounded than any other socially agreed-on fiction, a faith like any other (as the defenders of faiths like any other like to say). Back when, people looked at old teeth and broken bones with the eye of faith and called them relics; we look at them with the eye of another faith and call them proof. What’s different?
The defense of science against this claim turns out to be complicated, for the simple reason that, as a social activity, science is vulnerable to all the comedy inherent in any social activity: group thinking, self-pleasing, and running down the competition in order to get the customer’s (or, in this case, the government’s) cash. Books about the history of science should therefore be about both science and scientists, about the things they found and the way they found them. A good science writer has to show us the fallible men and women who made the theory, and then show us why, after the human foibles are boiled off, the theory remains reliable.
Adam Gopnik, “Spooked”, The New Yorker (30 November 2015), 84.