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Science Cannot Police Itself

In his new book, The Deniable Darwin (Discovery Institute Press, 2009), published just before the ClimateGate scandal broke, mathematician David Berlinski explained that scientists should not be trusted to check themselves--no more than anyone else on the planet, and maybe less so, since grant money is involved. Now he writes on his blog, "I Told You So."

From The Deniable Darwin:

My own view, repeated in virtually all of my essays, is that the sense of skepticism engendered by the sciences would be far more appropriately directed toward the sciences than toward anything else. It is not a view that has engendered wide-spread approval. The sciences require no criticism, many scientists say, because the sciences comprise a uniquely self-critical institution, with questionable theories and theoreticians passing constantly before stern appellate review. Judgment is unrelenting. And impartial. Individual scientists may make mistakes, but like the Communist Party under Lenin, science is infallible because its judgments are collective. Critics are not only unwelcome, they are unneeded. The biologist Paul Gross has made himself the master of this attitude and invokes it on every conceivable occasion.

Now no one doubts that scientists are sometimes critical of themselves. Among astrophysicists, backbiting often leads to backstabbing. The bloodletting that ensues is on occasion salutary. But the process of peer review by which grants are funded and papers assigned to scientific journals, is, by its very nature, an undertaking in which a court reviews its own decisions and generally finds them good. It serves the useful purpose of settling various scores, but it does not -- and it cannot -- achieve the ends that criticism is intended to serve.

If the scientific critic finds himself needed wherever he goes, like a hanging judge he finds himself unwelcome wherever he appears, all the more reason, it seems to me, that he really should get around as much as possible.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

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