The scientific death instinct ( 2013.12.1[Mon.])


  A few years ago, a clever young boy came crying home early from school. Her mother, who happens to be my younger sister, asked what was wrong and he told her that when they were studying categorical classifiers used to count things in Japanese, he had correctly answered that butterflies are counted “Itto, nito...,” but the teacher had told him he was wrong and that they should be counted “Ippiki, nihiki...” The class decided by some wrongheaded democratic process that this was the case, making him the laughingstock, and he decided to leave the small-minded village mindset behind. It’s sad to think that a schoolteacher born in the late 80s did not even posses the relatively elementary level of Japanese grammar to know that butterflies are counted as “~to.”

   I can understand why he cried–it must have been maddening to be corrected despite being correct. I have had the same sort of experience myself, during a science class when we were asked to name an insect that undergoes incomplete metamorphosis. Wanting to impress with the depth of my budding entomological knowledge, I answered “cicadas.” The class grew quiet. The other students mistakenly thought that the cicada’s mature nymph was in fact a pupa, and although a glint of recognition and agreement crossed the teacher’s face, he nonetheless said, “Mr. Kuratani, don’t you know that the cicada adult grows from a pupa?” I could only stare back at him and my classmates with bitter rage.

   Why do we experience such deep frustration in these situations? When a competitor publishes a conclusion that disagrees with our own, the feeling can be almost impossible to bear. But why? It has nothing to do with ethics or morality, and we are not harmed by such errors. But they are still somehow difficult to forgive. Why do we feel the petty need to take it upon ourselves to confront the world’s mistakes? It isn’t for acclaim, or achievement, or ambition. I suppose in some ways it resembles the desire for money or fame, but there is also something fundamentally different at work here.

   We can think of discoveries or degrees as valuable assets in the same way as we think of goods or currency. If it was enough just to know the truth for ourselves, then we could keep that knowledge secret and just smile. But that’s not how it works. Even when we are certain in our knowledge, the instant we hear someone else in error, we feel the urge to right them. Long ago, when Geocentric theory was taking Europe by storm, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for standing up for a dangerous truth. Galileo nearly followed him, but relented in the face of inquisition. Until recently, I had simply thought that these men were only being extraordinarily true to the scientific way of thinking. But I have come to believe it was more than just that. I can’t accept that simply explicating the truth to humanity and the world could be felt to have such value as to make death by fire seem an acceptable option.

   No one is harmed by believing the sun revolves around the earth, and in fact maintaining that erroneous belief may actually have been beneficial to humanity in the long run. After all, the perception of sunrise and sunset, and even our own bodily rhythms are essentially geocentric in outlook. People have actually died espousing heliocentrism, but not for the geocentric model. But scientists simply could not stand by and let the error go unchecked–it is in their nature to seek to spread the truth. Tycho Brahe died hoping to be remembered for his efforts to reconcile the geocentric universe with science, but this was just a variant of the same impulse, as he was less worried about profiting during his lifetime than in posterity (although there is admittedly the prospect of benefiting one’s descendants). I can’t say much for the evolutionary fitness of this posture, and perhaps the underlying genes will be bred out of the population over time. I can’t help but feel that we are watching a battle being waged at some unique level.

   The scientific process is designed to lead to the best hypotheses through rational testing, which makes it different at its core from the word games and rhetoric of the political process. So I know that I should have stood my ground, and insisted to the class that a cicada larva crawling through the earth for years has all the morphological elements of the adult, and convinced them that in no sense is it a pupa, for pupae surely do not walk about! But it isn’t that easy. For even as it supports science, society has a distinctly democratic bias in its ways of truth-finding, and thus old beliefs must fade away before new ones can be accepted. In a sense, it is akin to political revolution or a transfer of power.

   The risk of scientific values in democratic society was touched on in a 1992 article in Science, “When do anomalies begin?” written by Lightman and Gingerich. They argued that new paradigms introduced by Kuhnian revolutions in science overturn accepted ways of understanding the mysterious, and by introducing new scientific frameworks transform that which was once commonsense into nonsense, engendering the confusion and resistance that confront revolutionary science. Along similar lines, the papers that have led to Nobel Prizes have been rejected at unusually high rates from famous journals like Nature and Science.

   But how many people, including scientists, are able to recognize when they are wrong? Aren’t we all sometimes guilty of uncritically accepting articles as important just because they have gotten published in a high-impact journal? Or attributing their scientific value to a publication due to its impact factor, or the ability of its anonymous peer reviewers? The risk increases all the more when reading fields distant from our own. And thus even within our own community, we may find scientific truth trumped by majority rule. As science becomes ever more fragmented and specialized, the risks grows that its defense mechanisms will no longer serve as a check to simple populism. When we look at error and discrimination, democracy is a mortal enemy of scientific values.

   At every level, scientific truths can always pose a threat to everyday common sense; they have the latent potential to sacrifice humanity’s comforting sense of peace and calm, a potential that ultimately stands in the way of pure science Peering deeper beneath the surface of phenomena is at the root of the scholarly pathos, and cruelly leads some even to lose their lives in battle with an enormous foe. How much antipathy must one be willing to bear? Even had I convinced everyone that cicadas grow directly from larvae, it no doubt would have earned me the resentment of my teacher and perhaps a few of my peers. Battles of these kinds aren’t fought for pride or to win peace, or even to express one’s love of the truth. Rather, it is a characteristic of science as a human activity, one not unlike religion, in that scientists have their ‘spirit’ and their ‘works.’ Its suppression is thus a human undertaking as well.... Lavoisier, who ushered in a revolution in chemistry in 1789, became the fourth to lose his life to the guillotine in a different revolution four years later. Appeals were made to spare him, but were greeted coldly with, “the Republic has no need of geniuses.” In any society, democratic or otherwise, scientific discoveries and scientific values will always have the potential to disturb the peace and upset the order of things. Sometimes I can’t help but think that one must be prepared for this eventuality and just enjoy one’s work. Isn’t that the true meaning of peace?