Scientific Arrogance?

Reposted from: Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

Arrogance. It's a charge often levelled against those who reject religious faith, among whose numbers can be found many scientists. And, surely there are some scientists and their supporters who are arrogant, just as there are arrogant believers. Yet, while both hold humility as a high ideal, frequently it is the scientist who manages to inspire us by the very public admission of a mistake. In fact, science, more often than not, progresses in spite of arrogance, with advances made by disproofs, rather than proofs, of a theory.

One case in point would be the oft-repeated story of the aging zoology professor at Oxford who, after fifteen years of championing a particular theory, admitted his error after a visiting lecturer disproved that theory. Richard Dawkins recounted the tale in the series, Root of All Evil, but here it is as it was written in Unweaving the Rainbow:

"Arrogant or not, we at least pay lip-service to the idea that science advances by disproof of its hypotheses. Konrad Lorenz, father of ethology, characteristically exaggerated when he said he looked forward to disproving at least one pet hypothesis daily, before breakfast. But it is true that scientists, more than, say, lawyers, doctors or politicians, gain prestige among their peers by publicly admitting their mistakes. One of the formative experiences of my Oxford undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared, in ringing emotional tones, 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.' We clapped our hands red. Is any other profession so generous towards its admitted mistakes?"

Another case in point would be that of Homer Jacobson, professor emeritus of chemistry at Brooklyn College in New York City. Professor Jacobson sent a letter to American Scientist that was published in the November-December 2007 issue, in which he retracted two statements from an article of his that had been published over fifty years ago. His reasons? Read for yourself:

"Retraction this untimely is not normally undertaken, but in this case I request it because of continued irresponsible contemporary use by creationists who have quoted my not merely out-of-context, but incorrect, statements, to support their dubious viewpoint. I am deeply embarrassed to have been the originator of such misstatements, allowing bad science to have come into the purview of those who use it for anti-science ends."

Indeed. The two statements, which he described in the letter as incorrect, have been in use by creationists. At least two websites - and - had, in fact, quoted Mr. Jacobson's half-century old work which, as we now know, was wrong. In fairness, the latter website has since removed at least one quote, though a cached view of the site still showed the erroneous work.

It's not uncommon for creationists to engage in quote-mining, often taking the cited material out-of-context or distorting its meaning in other ways. Most famously misquoted, of course, is Charles Darwin. In this case, however, the quoted material was not only distorted, it was simply wrong in the first place.

Mr. Jacobson's example is inspiring, and serves as yet another example of how whatever arrogance there may be among scientists, it is mitigated by integrity and the desire to present a true picture of what is. As Richard Dawkins observed in Root of All Evil, remarking on the story of the zoology professor, no fundamentalist would ever say that. This is why the charge of arrogance, as its levelled against those who admire scientific truth, is nothing more than smoke, a tautological irrelevancy.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

J.C. Samuelson wrote:
"In fact, science, more often than not, progresses in spite of arrogance, with advances made by disproofs, rather than proofs, of a theory"

From my own personal experiences, I would say that most scientists (as well as engineers) take a lot of pride in the work do they do. They enjoy the discovery of facts and concepts, the inventing of some new 'thing' to give the world.
Perhaps within the field of their knowledge, they can come-off as being a bit arrogant about what they know, but if such folks were filled instead with self-doubting all the time, progress might very well come to a standstill instead.

In such scientific or engineering fields, there is always some system of "checks&balances" in place that continually seeks to do a "sanity check" on a theory or design.
Theories are examined and re-tested by peer groups, to be sure something wasn't overlooked, or some data being used was merely assumed but not proven.

Design flaws in the engineering community will show themselves by simulation, review, or at the very latest, in testing/use of the product produced.
While it's better to discover such flaws early on, it's only a matter of time before a thing is either proved out or proven to be flawed.

A good portion of xtians can also seem arrogant in their steadfast beliefs as well, but the difference is that such beliefs can rarely be tested out. The fundamental beliefs xtians hold, have NOTHING BUT FAITH to support them. The differences in interpretations of their bible, result not in a single truth being proved out in the end, but instead results in just another sect of the xtian faith being formed and added to the many we already have formed in just this manner.

We can't connect a bible book up to any instrument to measure it's performance or accuracy, as we can do in a lab for human-formed theories and products.
We have no means to know for sure what 'ingredients' our existing bible originally was meant to contain; assuming of course, there was an actual original and it was assisted by the hand of the xtian god.

The xtian god refuses to allow himself to be examined directly, or even show himself enough to verify his existence, yet many xtians can be quite ARROGANT about his assumed reality.

While scientist and engineers will sometimes 'go with a hunch', the results of their work in the end do not stand on a hunch alone, but on factual data and testing.

Xtians also 'go with a hunch' that their xtian god is real, but the factual data to support that hunch, never comes to pass. The strong FEELINGS instilled in them from that 'hunch' become the sole means to support their beliefs of their god/jesus.

So really, which is the more abominable form of arrogance?
An arrogance about ideas that contain testable provable ideas, or an arrogance based on feelings, contradictions and deceptions, from some ancient folks who had an agenda to brainwash whomever they could with their fables, and decrees from an imaginary sky god.

It should be obvious to everyone that religion is kept alive for two main reasons.
1. To sooth the fears of dying.
2. To 'control' the common folks of a given populace

ATF (who thinks arrogance based on ignorance, is by far, the worst of the two kinds)

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