How Special Is Science?

Philip Ball on writing about science in the Covid-19 pandemic

Science is special. Its central idea – collecting data about the real world, using it to formulate theories and hypotheses about how things work, and then testing them against observations or experiments in precise and quantified ways – has been shown again and again to be a remarkably powerful means of developing understanding that can be relied on and applied in useful ways.

The Covid-19 pandemic has supplied one of the starkest demonstrations of the value of this approach, not least in the development of vaccines that evidently work to protect us against the coronavirus.

While in practice this “scientific method” is messier and more ad hoc than is typically acknowledged, nonetheless it is a precious discovery in itself, and one that scientists are rightly keen to defend. When they hear accusations that scientific knowledge is shaped by social and political processes, that it is just one way of understanding the world, and that the process by which it is attained should be subject to constraints dictated by prevailing social mores, they may fear that the phenomenal benefits we have derived from science, and indeed the sheer intellectual value that inheres in it, are being threatened and undermined.

Such fears are, I believe, at the root of some recent commentaries deploring a perceived assault on science and rationality itself from demands that it adapt its practices and lexicon to current sociopolitical trends, in particular to calls for greater equality, social justice and respect for differences of race, sexuality and identity.

It is one thing to ask us as individuals to accommodate such things in our speech and actions – to recognize, for example, that our institutions are afflicted by deep-rooted prejudices and biases, and that such things are habitual in our personal behavior. But (the argument goes) science as an enterprise and methodology is special in this regard, too. Scientific ideas that have been shown to be reliable become no less so because their originators were products of their time, with all the prejudices that might entail. Science (it is asserted) is the paradigmatic meritocracy: it judges an individual’s contribution, and rewards it accordingly, purely on the basis of how well it helps us to understand the world, irrespective of gender, nationality, or skin color.

Similarly (it is said), scientific questions should not go unasked simply because the answers might upset us – for those answers will be objective and free from ideology. We can reasonably argue about whether, say, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an apologia for colonialist racism, but is it not surely absurd to level the same accusations at Newton’s laws of motion or Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection? Yet this viewpoint, while superficially beguiling, is itself profoundly irrational and anti-intellectual in its resistance to empirical evidence to the contrary. In asserting it, scientists often find themselves at odds with the historians who study their profession.

Historians of science have long pointed out how scientific ideas are shaped by the culture and society in which they arise, and that these influences run deep. Scientists whose theories prevailed over rivals were often more politically astute, more skilled at deploying persuasive rhetoric or at winning over allies – that case has been made, for example, for Lavoisier’s oxygen theory in chemistry and for Niels Bohr’s “Copenhagen” view of quantum mechanics. Maybe so, scientific purists will say – but historical contingency does not last. Bad theories can’t triumph for long, because nature is the ultimate arbiter. If an idea doesn’t fit with experiment, it will eventually be thrown out.

Just how experimentally constrained scientific theories are is a matter that has long been debated (and still is) by philosophers of science. And it’s surely no coincidence that they, like historians, are another scholarly group regularly dismissed and belittled by some practicing scientists as being irrelevant to the daily business of science. But in any event, many scientists seem determined to regard science and the knowledge it produces in Platonic terms: as rising rapidly above the histories, personalities, and social milieu that generate it.

Sure, they might say, Darwinism was misused in its early days, when it was still poorly understood, to support racism, eugenics and a host of other prejudices of the times. But now we really know what it means! And this notwithstanding the fact that still today leading scientists will argue about whether natural selection makes eugenics meaningfully possible in principle (while new biomedical technologies resurrect its spectre), or whether there are genetic distinctions that give rise to different characteristics between racial groups. The idea that all dubious sociopolitical considerations have long since been sifted out of such scientific theories is ludicrous and ahistorical special pleading.

The suggestion, meanwhile, that the practices and institutions of science have somehow elevated themselves above the injustices that afflict the rest of society – and that, in consequence, the most revered, respected and well-funded scientists are invariably the best we can produce – is nothing short of offensive.

Given how much evidence exists that some groups are deterred, held back, and even actively discriminated against in science on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and disability, asserting that science is strictly meritocratic amounts to a kind of denialism. There’s a discussion to be had about whether scientists who decry equal-opportunities initiatives should be silenced or reprimanded for expressing their views; but that doesn’t mean they can expect the right to express them in the scientific literature or at conferences, any more than that they can expect a platform for presenting flat-earth ideas or racist conspiracy theories.

I have discussed some of these issues elsewhere: whether, for example, it is wise to perpetuate the weird idolatry that science indulges in by naming everything from equations to medals to institutions after “greats” who might turn out to be clever bigots. What also concerns me, however, about the tendency to use science’s specialness as a reason to isolate and elevate it above the rest of society and culture is that it creates an intellectual narrowness that does harm to the image of science itself.

In his introduction to the 2021 anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing (an abridged version of which appears as his recent Atlantic essay, “What Even Counts as Science Writing Anymore?” ), Pulitzer-prize-winning science writer Ed Yong asks, “What even counts as science writing?”  The pandemic, he says, has blurred the boundaries.

Many science writers like Yong who have been writing largely about Covid-19 for the past two years have found that they simply cannot do their job properly if they limit themselves to the “scientific” issues – how an mRNA vaccine works, say. The tidy conventional notion that science does its objective business – finding out if a vaccine or antiviral works by clinical trials – before its ideas and products enter the messy sociopolitical arena (for better or worse) has been exposed by the Covid crisis as a fantasy.

For one thing, the vaccines could not have been developed so fast without a political decision to give the research huge, indeed unprecedented, financial support. The underlying research did not happen overnight – it built on decades of fundamental work, showing how vital it is that such research be consistently supported – but it bore fruit so quickly, surely saving hundreds of thousands of lives already, because of the political system in which it was embedded. More problematically, questions that might have seemed purely objective and scientific – how the virus originated, how it spreads, whether masks reduce infections, whether hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are effective antivirals – have become politicized, polarized and incendiary. And the entire notion that this is a crisis demanding technological fixes is delusional: nothing has more plainly exposed why public and global health is interwoven with social inequality.

Writing about “the science of Covid-19” would be worse than meaningless if it did not embrace such sociopolitical and cultural issues – it would be downright dishonest and dangerous.

I’m delighted to see this consideration of the cultural embeddedness of science come to the fore, even while being aghast at the circumstances that made it happen. But I feel it should never have been clear “what even counts as science writing,” precisely because science itself is not the isolated citadel of knowledge-making that many scientists would like it to be. In seeking to understand why things (including us) are the way they are, the idea that this task should be pursued independently inside and outside of a stockade labelled “science” is absurd and obsolete.

In every area of human endeavor, expertise requires specialization. That’s as true for organometallic catalysis (the subject of this year’s chemistry Nobel prize, which will seem deeply recondite to many) as it is for English Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century. Where we go wrong, though, is to suppose that this specialization reflects the absence of any intellectual, cultural or practical bridges between the two.

As Richard Holmes shows in his 2008 book The Age of Wonder, the pioneering chemist Humphry Davy and his friends, the Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, were not just interested in one another’s work; they considered that there were close intellectual and spiritual links between them. Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, another admirer of Davy, experimented in chemistry themselves (Davy is thought to have been the model for one of the characters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), while Davy wrote poetry (not terribly well, perhaps, but seriously). The painter J. M. W. Turner was friends with Davy’s protégé Michael Faraday, who the artist consulted about pigments.

It’s easy to romanticize the connections between science and the arts and humanities in former times, and to deplore how the “two cultures” rift that C. P. Snow asserted in 1959 has arisen in this time of specialization and disciplinary silos. Yet not only was Snow’s argument simplistic (it amounted to little more than a demand that humanities scholars learn a bit of thermodynamics), but any such rift exists only because it has been tolerated and even encouraged, partly by  excessive claims about science’s special intellectual status. Without denying that there are debates to be had about whether and how much any intellectual pursuit should be “policed” for congruence with prevailing social norms of behavior and expression, I suspect that much of the anguish felt by those who want to isolate science from what they see as interference by societal trends (as well as from the gaze of pesky historians, philosophers and cultural theorists) stems from the fact that this façade is becoming ever harder to sustain. That house of cards has been made even more unstable by the pandemic.

Such self-imposed cultural isolation – and the simplistic oppositions it creates – does not serve science well. As Holmes wrote, “The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.”

The effort to insulate science from the rest of culture has long been exemplified in the historiography of Isaac Newton. At first his interests in allegedly occult matters such as alchemy and religious prognostication were deemed too embarrassing even to acknowledge. Later – and often still today – they are dealt with by expressing bafflement at how a man able to deduce anything so rationalistic as the laws of motion and gravitation could at the same time entertain such fanciful nonsense. Those troublesome folk, contemporary historians of science, have however exposed the vapidity of this view.

Newton’s ideas, multifarious though they were, had coherence of a kind, as well as a firm foundation in Western thought. When he famously spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants, he was repeating a trope that was voiced (perhaps originated) by Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century. Bernard was the leader of the cathedral school that championed the idea of a law-bound universe created by God – a belief that was not science as such but surely a precondition for it. The embedding of scientific claims in religious tradition continues today, even if as a kind of perverse negative.

For example, when scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Steven Weinberg insist that the universe is harsh, uncaring and pointless, they are not making a scientific claim – which would merely state how things are – but one that only makes sense within a (supposedly) theological view of how it might otherwise be.

Politics, too, is not just a treacherous swamp that the scientists must navigate, but a kind of social aether that perfuses its practice, often in ways unperceived. Yong recounts how the nineteenth-century German physician Rudolf Virchow recognized the social factors – inequality, poor sanitation, malnutrition – that contributed to disease. Yong quotes his lapidary declaration: “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing but medicine in larger scale.”

But Virchow’s political sensibility registered even more deeply in his science. His conviction that tissues and organisms are collectives of cells was continuous with his belief in society as a community in which good health depended on collective action, free from any centralized authority. “What the individual is on a grand scale,” he wrote in 1885, “the cell is that and perhaps even more on a small one.” This conviction that health, whether of the body or the Body Politic, depended on collective and cooperative action was part and parcel of his political activism in the uprisings of 1848.

Virchow’s sociopolitical interpretation of health and medicine “waned as germ theory waxed,” Yong writes. “In a bid to be objective and politically neutral, scientists focused their attention on pathogens that cause disease and ignored the societal factors that make disease possible.” But germ theory, spearheaded by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, itself had political implications.

Rather than being caused by a geographically situated “miasma, or “bad-air”, disease was now deemed to be spread by contagion between people: it could be brought from outside, carried by strangers. When a French writer of 1885 wrote that germ theory explained disease as “coming from outside, penetrating the organism like a horde of Sudanese, ravaging it for the right of invasion and conquest,” we hear the language not just of late nineteenth-century imperialism but of the politicized and xenophobic labelling of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.” “Science is undoubtedly political,” Yong says, “whether scientists want it to be or not, because it is an inextricably human enterprise. It belongs to society. It is interleaved with society. It is of society.”

And just as politics can influence scientific thinking, so can the denial of political context and influence render the scientist dangerously amoral. All the while that German physicist Werner Heisenberg worked for the Third Reich, delivering “cultural” talks to Nazi-occupied countries and developing the nuclear program that offered a promise (as Heisenberg told his leaders) of unlimited power and weapons of awesome destructiveness, he told himself that science operated on a plane above such grubby concerns. He was not alone in doing so in Nazi Germany.

As Heisenberg’s example shows, to assert a position of objective rationalism in a culture shaped by sociopolitical factors is itself a political stance. While in no way suggesting a moral parallel, the same is true when scientists insist that current methods of scientific appointment, preferment, citation and reward are just fine as they are and should not be tampered with in the name of equality or social justice. Certainly it would be foolish to suppose that the scientific thinking of James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA’s double helix and a prime motivating force behind the Human Genome Project, is not of a piece both with his strongly deterministic beliefs about genetics and his apparent conviction that genetic factors produce differences of intelligence and other traits between races.

Watson has become something of a pariah because of the latter views, but some consider this censure to be a form of intellectual “cancellation” and defend Watson on the grounds of his scientific eminence. It would be ludicrous to suggest that such a defense works in the name of keeping science “apolitical”. Of course, there is no reason to suppose that science will be any less vulnerable to the prejudices and malpractices found in the rest of society – but it has a long and ignominious history of tolerating and excusing racism, sexual harassment and bullying from its distinguished practitioners on the grounds that they are “special”.

Yong is right to say that “science touches everything, and everything touches science” – and that science writing needs to reflect this, and scientists to acknowledge it. That means refusing to draw to a halt at the boundaries of that stockade, but to go where the topic demands.

I wrote my book Critical Mass (2004) in part with the agenda of encouraging researchers who are seeking to use concepts from physics to understand human behavior to recognize that their work both could and should be joined up with political philosophy from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and Marx. When in my book Invisible (2014) I included fairy tales and Shakespeare’s ghosts as well as optics and metamaterials, it probably scuppered the book’s credentials as a “science book” but was in part to show why modern research on “electromagnetic cloaks” cannot be conceptually isolated from what cultures past and present have made of the “superpower” described by Plato in the legend of the Ring of Gyges.

Science is special, but it is not an island culture. We will not understand it without acknowledging its context, how it feeds into society and culture and is nourished as well as shaped by them. I hope we can give it that wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.

Philip Ball is a scientist, writer, and a former Editor at the journal Nature. He has won numerous awards and has published more than twenty-five books, most recently The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination and  The Beauty of Chemistry: Art, Wonder, and Science. He  writes on science for many magazines and journals internationally and is the contributing editor for Science at the Marginalia Review of Books.