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THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD-VIEW: AN OXYMORON?

In a commentary for Nature (Volume 388:619-620, 1997), historian of science Mott T. Greene wrote:

Science education has become so specialized that scientific literacy is little more advanced among scientists than it is among non-scientists. Undergraduates who have completed courses on cell biology and evolution are unable to discuss broad issues in evolutionary theory, let alone Earth history or cosmogony, in any greater depth that can their non-scientist peers.

The narrowness of science education, he says, engenders among scientific specialists an "almost universal" and "robust pride" that "one’s knowledge of science is narrow but deep," an attitude reinforced by:

...a strong sense among scientists that, because the advance of science depends on the accumulation of knowledge rather than opinion, they are not permitted to speak about scientific subjects in public other than those in which they are expert.

The resulting "loss of a view of the whole," he continues:

...travels in harness with a contempt for generalization—invariably stigmatized as 'popularization' or 'speculation'—and with an irritation directed at those who claim that historically things were different, and even better.

Thus, he sees as not unlikely a world soon to be:

... dominated by the results and artifacts of natural science, but in which no-one has a scientific world-view. This outcome, not as bizarre or unlikely as it may appear at first, would be remarkable, not least for the danger it would pose to the continued survival of the scientific enterprise.

If we’d read that beforehand, we might have thought twice about launching naturalSCIENCE, for naturalSCIENCE, seeks to persuade scientists to do precisely what Mott Greene says they are generally disinclined to do and for which they may be stigmatized by their peers for doing; namely, to explain their work and ideas for the benefit of a wide audience and, in so doing, to indicate the broader implications, scientific, social and philosophical.

But at least one has the impression that Greene considers the scientific community open to literary redemption. Less encouraging were letters published by Nature in response to Greene’s commentary.

Confirming that there are scientists who think it right and proper to restrict their scientific view of the world to what may be seen through a drinking straw, Vera Bongertz, wrote from Rio de Janeiro (Nature Volume 389:539, 1997):

...the main impediment in discussing areas of research other than our own is the knowledge that we do not know enough. While I am giving classes about CD4—gp120 interactions and CCR5/CXCR4 discrimination of HIV tropism, new receptors are being described and my knowledge seems completely outdated. ...I do not like being ‘outdated’ or simply wrong, so I avoid public statement of opinions.

Even more discouraging was this comment from G. Wilse Robinson, of Lubbock, Texas (Nature Volume 389:538-539, 1997):

... science funding policies in the United States and elsewhere have provoked narrowness through the absurd and self destructive 'anonymous peer review' system. So-called peer reviewers feel that outsiders cannot know enough to contribute to their field. They thus tend to vote down financial support to any scientist who would like to broaden out, and thus encroach on the reviewer’s territory.

These trends have resulted in small knots of hostile specialists in ever narrowing research areas.

...This means, [that] ... in the near future, those who go in and stay [in science] will mainly be those with such limited thinking ability that nothing scientifically really new will ever be discovered. Is that what everyone wants?

But the outlook, surely, is not so grim. naturalSCIENCE has, after all, received contributions from scientists both young and old: proof, if any were needed, that there are scientists interested in communicating their work and ideas to a wide audience. In the future, we hope to hear from many more who share that interest.

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