In the past year I had the pleasure of reading two popular science books about topics that are very close to my heart. Lee Smolin’s “The trouble with physics” and Vlatko Vedral’s “Decoding reality”. Both are excellent scientists and science communicators and the books are highly recommended.
If there is one criticism it is that both authors try to convince the reader of their own ideas about how to do ground braking science and how to answer the most fundamental questions in science and philosophy. In the case of Smolin it is “background independence” and a complete overhaul of the academic evaluation and hiring process. In the case of Vedral it is quantum information theory as the basis of everything. I agree with both on most points (at least those I understand) but feel that when one author tries to undersell string theory and the other tries to oversell information theory some objectivity is lost.
Now you have to ask yourselves a , “Why would anyone recommend a book on science if it is somewhat subjective”. Well… if I could only recommend truly objective books I would probably be limited to textbooks in mathematics.
Scientists are (for the most part) human and tend to loose objectivity about as fast as anyone else. Ok, true overwhelming evidence will usually make a scientist change his mind and admit he is wrong, but in the absence of such OVERWHELMING evidence (if the evidence was overwhelming it is probably not pushing the boundaries ) scientist tend to stick to what they believe. Especially if they have been working in this direction for years and years.
This is indeed the trouble with science communicators. People believe in their own research programs and will try to convince you that these research programs are the best path to the given goal. One very evident example is research on anthropogenic global warming. Seemingly there are two sides fighting it out, the “believers” and the “skeptics”. We, the general public were probably most influenced by our first impression on this debate. It depends on the newspaper article you read first or the first t.v show you saw on the subject. These are usually written by a non-scientist and include some (often carefully chosen) pieces of interviews with the people who are actually doing the research. The researchers will obviously try to sell their own findings and present them as the state of the art. And lets’ face it, most of these researchers got into their field with their own prejudice.
So, what is the solution? Don’t try communicate science to the public? Clearly that would miss the point, the public is funding your research and you better show them something for it. Moreover you should educate and use science to benefit everyone. One thing we should stop doing is selling scientists as the model of objectivity, people should realize that scientists too have OPINIONS and that every scientific theory should be questioned. The evidence is very seldom overwhelming at the forefront of science and debates always exist. Even quantum mechanics, the most successful physical theory so far, may turn out to be incomplete. A number of scientists, even some very good ones, are actively looking for possible flaws in the theory and alternative explanations for known phenomena.
So yes be skeptical about everything. That being said, don’t outright reject good science just for the sake of skepticism. There are smart guys out there and they are probably closer to being right then wrong, even if they are somewhat subjective.
And in case it was not obvious, the neutrality of this article is disputed.