When Scientists Attack

by PhysicsJenn

The scientific method is supposed to be impartial, an objective process by which a researcher can come to a conclusion that is uncolored by personal bias.  In reality, scientists are people with personal views and biases.  The problem occurs when they allow their personal biases to infect their scientific research.  I’ve been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and one of the most fascinating stories so far had to do with the advent of cell culturing experiments.  The first scientist who claimed to have grown an immortal cell sample, Dr. Alexis Carrel, also turned out to be a eugenicist who praised Hitler’s efforts to purify the human race.  The stigma of these views colored the public perception of cell research for years after.  Other scientists have had scandal due to their personal views, which has damaged their credibility and even affected their field, as the public associates the research in general with the personal views of one scientist.

Dr. James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick for discovering the structure of DNA, has been a constant and consistent example of a scientist who cannot seem to keep his opinions to himself, even framing them as valid scientific results.  His views on genetic screening and engineering has led to a public perception that the mapping of the human genome leads the way to genetic discrimination and selective abortion of undesirable traits (such as homosexuality or stupidity, rather than diseases).  His defender at one point, Dr. Richard Dawkins, who proposed a gene-centered view of evolution, is not much better of an example, using his position as a scientist to criticize religion and argue that atheism is the only reasonable belief for a person of science.  Both of these scientists did credible and legitimate research in their chosen fields, but have had their scientific accomplishments eclipsed by their unpopular personal views.

Charles Darwin is another scientist who may have altered the perception of his work by connecting it to his personal views.  One motivation for exploring evolution was the idea that evolutionary processes led to the differentiation of the sexes, making men stronger than women.  He argued that races in which men and women seemed less differentiated were less evolved, and therefore was able to use his theory of evolution to “prove” the superiority of the Caucasian race.  Further offshoots of Darwinism led to the eugenics movement and the ideas of social Darwinism, which are both used as justification for racism and other forms of harmful prejudice.

While all of these scientists contributed to their fields in major ways, airing their personal views has damaged their credibility and, in some cases, the credibility of their research or even the field as a whole.  These examples are ones that I try to keep in mind when I am writing about science, either in a technical way, or for a broader audience, so that I avoid injecting my own biases about certain scientific topics into my writing.  In many ways, science writing is similar to journalism in that it must be interesting rather than dry, but still unbiased.

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