There has been much talk in the pop-sci world of “memes”—ideas that somehow manage to replicate themselves in our heads. But perhaps the real memes are not ideas or tunes or artifacts but ways of making them—habits of mind rather than products of mind. Science isn’t a slot machine, where you drop in facts and get out truths. But it is a special kind of social activity, one where lots of different human traits—obstinacy, curiosity, resentment of authority, sheer cussedness, and a grudging readiness to submit pet notions to popular scrutiny—end by producing reliable knowledge. The spread of Bill James’s ideas on baseball, from mimeographed sheets to the front offices of the Red Sox, is a nice instance of how a scientific turn of mind spread to a place where science hadn’t usually gone. (James himself knew it, remarking that if he was going to be Galileo someone had to be the Pope.)
One way or another, science really happens. The claim that basic research is valuable because it leads to applied technology may be true but perhaps is not at the heart of the social use of the enterprise. The way scientists do think makes us aware of how we can think.
Adam Gopnik, “Spooked”, The New Yorker (30 November 2015), 86.