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.

Pageviews this week: