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Science is built on the contributions of scientists, not on their authority.

January 31, 2012

Many people like to be guided by gurus. In science, there’s only one guru – the evidence.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science. See them all here.

In short…

The work of scientists, no matter how eminent or influential, is always judged by the quality of their evidence and reasoning , not by their authority.


Nullius in verba  (Take nobody’s word for it)

Motto of The Royal Society

Paperscape image

A map of 880,197 scientific papers from the arXiv, by Paperscape.

How is scientific knowledge established?

Scientific understanding builds up through the contributions of countless scientists over time. In most fields of science, there are some scientists who contribute far more than others. They are acknowledged by their peers as eminent scientists. However, in judging their work it’s always the quality of the evidence that matters, not the scientists’ status.

What is the role of authority in science?

There is limited room for authority in science.  The scientific community takes particular notice of the work of eminent scientists, who consequently influence the direction taken by scientific research, but they do not have any influence over the data. A model survives or perishes according to the evidence, no matter who proposes it.

Those of us who are not experts in a particular scientific field usually have trouble interpreting the evidence and need to refer to trusted scientists for advice. So how do we know who to trust? It’s important to remember that a scientist can be regarded as an authority only within his or her field. It’s a good idea to be skeptical of any scientists who claim authority outside their fields of expertise.

One way of identifying authoritative scientists is to consult the body that represents scientists working in the relevant field. For example, the Institute of Physics  is a worldwide organisation representing physicists. If a scientist is prominent within a field, it’s probably because of a history of presenting reliable evidence and analysis.

Nobel Prize winners are widely acknowledged as being authoritative figures in their field, and there are many other prizes and awards that are less well-known. However, you should be wary of Nobel Disease, the strange tendency of Nobel laureates to embrace pseudoscience in their later years.

Ultimately, scientific authority rests in the evidence. When eminent scientists publish new research, the findings are subject to peer review and replication, just as the work of any other scientist is. It can be challenged by any other researchers in the field, no matter what their status, as long as they have better evidence.

Why science is not based on authority

Scientists are vulnerable to the normal human failings. We all tend to cling to favoured ideas, even when the evidence shows they are on shaky ground. If authority counted for more than evidence, incorrect models could survive when they deserve to be rejected.

Bogus science often relies on the authority of gurus whose pronouncements are not to be questioned.

Examples

  • American chemist Linus Pauling is one of the few people to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes, for chemistry (in 1954) and peace (in 1962). He is regarded as one of the most important chemists in history.  In the late 1960’s, Pauling began to promote large doses of vitamin C as a way of preventing the common cold. Rather than carry out controlled studies, though, he published a book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, which described his ideas. In the early 1970’s he began to promote Vitamin C as a treatment for cancer. Despite Pauling’s scientific eminence, the scientific community was very skeptical because of the paucity of supporting evidence for his claims and his avoidance of the peer review process. Continuing trials, although showing some benefits from vitamin C supplements, have not supported Pauling’s optimism (see here, here and here). Pauling is often quoted as an example of Nobel disease.
  • Creationists often attack Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, imagining that the modern evolutionary model depends on his authority. Darwin found evidence for evolution and presented this in support of his original model in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Since that time, scientists have uncovered vast quantities of new evidence, all supporting an evolutionary model. The specifics of Darwin’s model have been modified and refined, and in many details Darwin was ‘wrong’, but the evolutionary model has been reinforced and survives (see here, here and here).
  • Homeopathy is based on ideas of Samuel Hahnemann, formulated in the late 18th century. Hahnemann’s ‘law of similars’ proposed that substances that caused symptom similar to those of an ailment can, when highly  diluted, cure that ailment. No evidence has been found to support this law, and trials have consistently shown that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo (see here and here). Homeopathy continues to rely on Hahneman’s ‘authority’ despite the lack of evidence.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science. See them all here.



This page reviewed and updated: 2013/10/14

4 Comments
  1. In science, natural laws could be shown to be wrong at some time iof there are data to suggest it. EVERYTHING in science is tentative. In science, nothing is above revision or being outright wrong.

    Some people erroneously believe that our natural laws cannot possibly be wrong

  2. I forgot to add that the correct attitude is ” EVERYTHING is possibly wrong, let us see.” Richard Feynman stressed this.

  3. Skippy permalink

    “Some people erroneously believe that our natural laws cannot possibly be wrong.”

    Just the other day,I was wondering, why schools and hospitals are spontaneously collapsing all over the place, the above explains it…scientists, architects and engineers are “winging” it.

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