Are Scientists Self-Critical Enough?

There is a widespread misconception among the American public that scientists and academics in general are smug, self-satisfied, abrasive, entitled, obnoxious, over-opinionated weenies who, for all of their competence in their field of study, can be surprisingly out of touch with ordinary realities, such as the basics of personal hygiene, how not to be socially awkward, or how to calculate a tip after dining out; and, furthermore, that their hyper-specialized environment fosters a profound ignorance of anything beyond their ken which inevitably leads to an atrophy of the non-specialized mind, the lack of which may be leading us to disaster. (Contrast this with Goethe, one of several intellectuals during the Enlightenment era who had good reason to believe his scientific accomplishments would be better remembered than his literary ones.) Despite these criticisms, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth; that although academics have their fair share of shortcomings and peccadilloes, on the whole they are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings I have ever known.

However, it is clear that we still need a healthy dose of critical self-evaluation every now and then. A recent opinion piece by Colin Macilwain in Nature highlights how self-criticism is necessary for the healthy operation of any industry, in order to highlight the bad as well as the good. For example, although within the United States federally-funded research has skyrocketed in recent years, there has been little systematic investigation into the effects of this spending; in short, whether Americans are actually getting a return for their dollar. This has parallels with the amount of education spending within the past few decades, which, although mind-bogglingly high, has not led to proportional increases in standardized test scores or improvements in rankings compared to countries who spend less. The argument that it would be worse otherwise is tenuous at best.

So, is a good, hard look at ourselves really what we need? We might take an example from Wordsworth, whose wellsprings of self-criticism appeared to dry up halfway through his career, and so spent the remaining few decades writing verse he never should have started, the vast collection of his later work serving as a sort of monument to decayed genius. A recurrent theme with either individuals or societies faced with an embarrassment of riches and the unceasing flattery of their colleagues is a failure to occasionally step back and objectively evaluate oneself, which eventually leads to complacency, and, finally, decadence.

Some may attribute this lack of self-criticism to the recent homogenization of opinion within academia, which at one point was supposed to be a marketplace of ideas - no matter how eccentric - but where recently opinions on everything from religion to politics have become remarkably predictable, with miniscule variations in opinion, always in degree but never in kind, serving as a kind of ersatz dissent where one can still feel the thrill and righteousness of disagreement with none of the discomfort that comes with having one's worldview fundamentally challenged. Here I must disagree, as since we have committed to making steady progress toward truth throughout our species' history, it is necessary to discard incorrect opinions and theories as they come up, and so we must feel no compunction (ethically speaking, of course), to extirpate, smother, stifle, and suffocate contrary views which would seek to undermine opinions that have been empirically validated and widely held by the majority of intelligent individuals. Mill's views on this were, I am afraid, sorely misguided.