Deference and its Discontents

There are many tributaries that flow into the river of hostility to science, and some of them are ideas and thoughts that, used well, have much to recommend them. Used badly, they are another matter. Good ideas misapplied can turn silly in a heartbeat.

There is for instance the matter of deference. There is a bumper sticker/T shirt slogan in the US: ‘Question Authority’. Of course it’s obvious if you think about it for one second that that idea can cut both ways. To get it right the slogan would have to use qualifying language that would ruin it as a slogan. ‘Question authority but also bear in mind that authority may well know more than you do and knowing more doesn’t absolutely always equate to arbitrary and unjust privilege so–’

No, it won’t do. But that’s why slogans aren’t much use, really, except to rally the troops, and sometimes the troops are rallied to dash off in the wrong direction. As with hostility to science. Of course, many scientific disciplines have vast social impacts and implications and therefore should be accountable, subject to scrutiny and second-guessing and probing questions from outsiders. But it doesn’t follow from that that science as a whole, the scientific way of thinking, the emphasis on evidence and peer review and replication, is fraudulent or sinister or accorded undue deference. In some quarters it is considered as hopelessly naive and retrogressive to think science is in general a good idea as it is to think the earth is flat, or possibly more so. After all, who told us it wasn’t? Consider the source! Question authority!

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