As a follow-up to my post on science and the Obama Inaugural, I wanted to note a terrific essay by Dennis Overbye on the civic virtues of science in the New York Times. He argues that virtue emerges from the process of science: “Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.” Continuing, he writes,
That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.
There is a certain egalitarian, round-table ethos to science done well. It doesn’t matter what degrees you have or where from. What matters is whether you ask and answer interesting questions. Of course, institutions that support science frequently care about degrees and where they’re from, but in my experience, good scientists don’t. While there are certainly barriers to entry (e.g., the cost of higher education, the difficulty of mastering a subject), there is no fundamentally esoteric knowledge in science. When it’s working right, everything is transparent. It has to be because no one will believe you unless it can be repeated.
I certainly hope the rhetoric of respect for science and the idea that empirical research will inform policy continues and gets translated into tangible support for research in the coming years.