The institutional arrogance of science

Let me expand on something I wrote in my last post:

There’s something about scientists’ training that makes us believe we’re all qualified to speak for “science.”  I would never consider speaking authoritatively on condensed matter physics even though I’ve taken a few classes in the subject.  Yet in the past I have waxed eloquently about “science.”  And the funny thing is that people (especially non-scientists) take me seriously.  But if I’m not qualified to speak about all areas of physics, how on earth am I qualified to speak for science?

It sounds harsh, but I think that arrogance is really the best way to describe this attitude. All scientists somehow assert the right to speak for science even though they are experts in only a single area.  Simply put, scientists are arrogant.  Those of you who’ve spent time in academia are probably wondering why I waste time stating something so obvious.  We’re used to interacting with people with big egos.  But I think there’s something a bit different operating here.

Faculty at big research universities are usually the best of the best.  They’ve had incredibly successful careers and there’s a degree of arrogance that goes along with it.  It’s not much different from people in other fields.  But consider anyone who is or has been in a science PhD program.  These people are generally not arrogant or overconfident.  In most cases, I think they exude humility and restraint.  And yet all of us believe that we’re qualified to speak for “science.”

I said this before, but modern science is HUGE.  There are millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars involved.  On top of that, science has become even more specialized.  I didn’t completely understand what all my labmates worked on even though we all studied space physics.  The combination of greater size with greater specialization means that your average scientists knows a very, very, very small portion of science.   When it was limited to a handful of wealthy, white, Christian males, perhaps “science” and “scientists” were coherent ideas.  But I don’t think they still are.

Right now your average scientist knows as much about science as an average athlete knows about sports.  Michael Jordan was rarely, if ever, asked to comment about all of sports.  Everyone recognized that his skill at basketball didn’t transfer to swimming or track-and-field.  I suspect that he knew of his own limitations in this regard.  This type of humility doesn’t happen with scientists.  My friends and I all believed we knew enough to debate whether “science” was value-free.  We were so confident we didn’t bother looking at the evidence!  More than anything else, this is what I can’t really wrap my head around.  When it comes to speaking about “science”, most scientists are pretty unscientific.  I know I’ve been guilty in the past.

Somewhere along the way us scientists have cultivated this false confidence in our knowledge. I know it’s probably a stretch, but I think it might be similar to institutional racism.   As I understand the concept, racism can be inflicted even if people are well-meaning.  (See Racism without Racists by Bonilla-Silva.*)  Society and institutions may be perpetuate racism even if individuals aren’t racist.

Somewhat along those lines, I think that science portrays an arrogance despite humility of individual scientists.  It’s not a perfect analogy because I  think that the scientists themselves are arrogant.  But it’s a highly contextualized arrogance.  I wouldn’t call my friends arrogant even though they all arrogantly speak for all of science.  Maybe the institution of science engenders arrogance in otherwise humble people? I’m not sure…I’ll have to flesh this idea out some more.  Right now I’m pretty sure I’m rambling and making no sense.

*I feel I should say that I haven’t actually read that book.  But I thank my friend Sapna for the recommendation.


  1. It made sense! Don’t ever admit to rambling- then people will look for the ramble (is that a word? don’t ever ask that either :-). If you’re afraid you’re rambling, clean up your text so you’re sure you’re not. And if you think you may have just made up a word, use a dictionary.

  2. I think the arrogance is partly a result of our educational process. Scientists tend to be intelligent. In school we tend to excel (at least in some fields – we are notoriously not so good at written language, for example – as evidenced by the many instances of poor writing, grammatical and spelling errors, and such in our writings). But just as good athletes know they are good athletes, smart kids know they are smart and if we’re also good in scientific and technical areas, our teachers, parents and peers tend to let us know it. So when we’re in school and we get admitted into tough college programs like science and engineering we note that our less able peers go into non-technical majors and we tend to see ourslves as high in the academic pecking order. This tends to be confirmed as we proceed through our lives.

    A second issue is why we feel able to speak about science. In short, it’s because we see so much blatant ignorance about it among the general population. If I went to a remote, uncivilized land where they don’t have indoor plumbing I might feel that I could speak with some authority about plumbing, even though my knowledge is not that of a true plumber.

  3. I don’t think it is arrogance, but rather a lack of ignorance. For example, should you be asking why do priests, mullahs, rabbis, monks and other religious or cult leaders behave so arrogantly when they preach what is at best lies, and is at worst a means towards creating brainwashed terrorists? Scientists all follow the same scientific method. The method allows them to cross over between specialities because they can see if the method has been used, if it has been peer reviewed, and thus if it is reasonable conclusion. Religions and cults are based on ancient texts that have zero evidence to back them up e.g. Mohammed went to Heaven and presumably came back down again; Moses obtain the 10 commandments from God etc, etc. These are nice little stories yet Mullahs and rabbis preach them arrogantly as truth and that Allah or God will punish those who do not believe them with hell fire. Religions are highly institutionalised compared with science.

    Yes, there will always be a bias towards one theory in scientific institutions. For example, there is a bias right now towards man made CO2 driving climate change. This might of course turn out to be a lot more complex. For example climate change has many factors including the magnetic field of the sun and its ability to deflect high energy particles that seed clouds.

    And perhaps one scientist of a narrow specialism should stick to his own subject, but it doesn’t stop them reviewing other parts of science and commenting on them! In fact their insight might help the specialists rethink their models.

  4. All science is based on a process rather than a set of facts. A scientist in one specialty may not be able to teach another specialty, but if someone makes a science-based claim, a scientist can judge the scientific process that led to it. Science!

  5. [Update: Sorry for the slow reply as I have been on vacation and didn’t get back until a couple days ago.]
    Wow! Thanks for the great discussion everyone. I did not expect this as I haven’t blogged here for almost a year now! I’ll have to head over to quora to check out what other people said.

    @Dennis: great points. I totally see what you’re saying, and that it may not be too unreasonable for us (do I still count as scientist?:-)) to speak about “science”.

    @Franz: will politely disagree with your generalizations about religions. And not as convinced how much non-specialists (even if they are scientists) can help progress a field forward.

    @Ericka: Thanks! But like with Frank, not as convinced as you that *any* scientists can just *any* scientific process/methodology.

    Thanks again. If you’re interested in even more controversial topics, check out my new blog at

  6. “All scientists somehow assert the right to speak for science even though they are experts in only a single area.”

    1) Science is a process first & foremost. The “body of facts” that makes up a given discipline is a distant second.

    2) The “firewalls” we put up between physics vs. chemistry vs. biology vs. . . . . . psychology vs. sociology vs. whatever are human constructs, not features of reality.

    These two observations are why scientists can critique methodological errors in fields that aren’t their principal domain. Freeman Dyson is a physicist, but his deep understanding of the scientific PROCESS is what lends credence to his skepticism of AGW. Francis Crick was a physicist by training, but that didn’t stop him from discovering DNA in the 1950’s.

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