No one wants to be a “science-denier” these days. As insipid and fatuous as the phrase is (I thought that skepticism and receptiveness to revision were essential to scientific thought?), twenty-first century Americans accept it as an especially caustic version of “stupid idiot”. If experts in white coats tell us one thing in peer-reviewed professional journals, therefore, while relatively uncredentialed protesters howl away at them from personal websites, we smirk at the protest. What a bunch of losers! What a lot of wacko conspiracy-buffs and flat-earth troglodytes!
At the same time, we—the general public—are pretty troglodytic on any given issue. We really don’t understand the intricacies of the cyber world or the medical world. How could we? How could any one human brain? Perhaps a brilliant, devoted professional might understand in some detail the current state of learning in one advanced science; but of other sciences (and often ones related to his own field), he is necessarily as ignorant as a Dante scholar of electrical engineering. Ours is the age of the specialist—and as Ortega y Gasset noted a century ago, every specialist tends to think that he knows everything about everything just because he knows almost everything about one tony group of things.
Well, maybe that’s not quite true. I incline to believe, rather, that we invoke holy “science” in areas where we have none because we’re all too aware of our deficiency. By endorsing what the “scientists” have discovered in that field, however, we demonstrate to the world that we understand the pedigree of true knowledge. No, we’re not biochemists… but we’re smart enough to know when biochemists should have the last word, unlike those loony conspiracy-theorists!
This makes us easy prey for genuine conspiracy. Since our egotism inhibits us from asking such obvious questions as, “What if they’re cooking the books?” and, “What if no one dare blow a whistle lest he or she be forever banished from the profession?” we’re left sprawling in childish gullibility. We simply take it as an article of faith that the “science god” wouldn’t lie to us. What if the flu vaccine really isn’t any good, or what if chemotherapy is so liberally prescribed simply because the pharmaceutical-medical complex wants to recoup its immense investment in researching and developing a bunch of toxic drugs? How would we know… because professional ethics would compel the white coats to come clean? Really?
I suppose another reason why we scoff at wacko whistleblowers is what used to be called “whistling in the graveyard”. We need to put on a brave face… because if we once admit our enormous degree of unknowing and exposure, we’d hardly be able to shut our eyes at night. Better to stop our ears, shut our eyes, and repeat in a loud voice, “It’s science! It’s science! It’s science!”
And yet… quis custodes custodiet? Who will guard the guards?