by Judith Curry
Tracing the acceptance or rejection of “scientist” among researchers not only gives us a history of a word—it also provides insight into the self-image of scientific researchers in the English-speaking world in a time when the social and cultural status of “science” was undergoing tremendous changes. – Melinda Baldwin
In the most recent Open thread, I linked to a post by Melinda Baldwin The history of ‘scientist’. This is a fascinating topic and a relevant one as well. The debate about expertise and who is a ‘climate scientist’ has been discussed a number of times at Climate Etc., most recently Uneasy expertise .
Here are some excerpts from Baldwin’s piece:
In Britain, many researchers viewed “scientist” as a term that threatened their social and intellectual identity, a term that would open science up to any “Barney Bunkum” rather than confirm it as a selective, expert endeavor. Most nineteenth-century scientific researchers in Great Britain preferred another term: “man of science.” The analogue for this term was “man of letters”—a figure who attracted great intellectual respect in nineteenth-century Britain. “Man of science,” of course, also had the benefit of being gendered, clearly conveying that science was a respectable intellectual endeavor pursued only by the more serious and intelligent sex.
“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains.
Feelings against “scientist” in Britain endured well into the twentieth century. In 1924, “scientist” once again became the topic of discussion in a periodical, this time in the influential specialist weekly Nature. Physicist Norman Campbell sent a Letter to the Editor of Nature asking him to reconsider the journal’s policy of avoiding “scientist.” He admitted that the word had once been problematic; it had been coined at a time “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Campbell argued, however, that such questions of “style” were no longer a concern—the scientist had now secured social respect. Furthermore, said Campbell, the alternatives were old-fashioned; indeed, “man of science” was outright offensive to the increasing number of women in science. JC comment: Slovenly!!!
Dan Hughes subsequently emailed me a link to the 1964 paper by Sydney Ross entitled Scientist: The story of a word. This paper provides some broader historical insights. Excerpts:
To the historian of science the present story is significant because it marks in a dramatic way the transition of the cultivation of science from the hands of the amateur to those of the professional. The designation scientist, with its overtones of specialism and professionalism (cf. dentist, pediatrist, etc.) was not in accord with the persona that the gifted amateur had of himself and his scientific pursuits ; his ideal was that of a man liberally educated, whose avocation was science as an intellectual cum philanthropic recreation, to which he might indeed devote most of his time without ever surrendering his claim to be a private gentleman of wide culture. In particular, to be thought of as pursuing science for money was distasteful. Even men like Davy and Faraday, who actually earned their livelihoods by the practice of science, were so imbued by this attitude as to reject opportunities of enriching themselves by patenting or otherwise restricting the publication of their inventions. The genuine amateurs and the actual professionals, who still maintained the same ideals as the amateurs, chose science for its own sake and regarded themselves as benefactors of mankind. To them the word scientist implied making a business of science; it degraded their labours of love to a drudgery for profits or salary.
By way of introduction to our story of scientist we should glance at the words science and scientific. Science entered the English language in the Middle Ages as a French importation synonymous with knowledge. It soon gained the connotation of accurate and systematized knowledge. One had ‘scientific knowledge’ when he had arrived at it demonstratively, that is, by a syllogism that started from necessary first principles grasped by pure reason or intuition. The word entered the Romance languages with this meaning, but came into English only as late as 1600.
The linguistically curious phrase scientific knowledge was not a tautology: its purpose was to create a distinction between common knowledge and scientific knowledge. From now on, science and knowledge were not to be considered as synonymous: science stood for a particular kind of knowledge–firmer and less fallible knowledge — whether that knowledge is to be derived, as Aristotle had taught, by straight deductive logic; or whether, as Bacon was the first to apprehend, it must gradually evolve, using observation and experiment, by refining and clarifying its former partial truths.
The sciences, as understood by the Scholastic philosophers in the Aristotelian sense, were specialized branches of philosophy, and included the seven sciences of mediaeval learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. When the number of sciences was enlarged, they were classified under the headings of natural, moral, and first philosophy (or metaphysics). But we actually find Grosseteste, the 13th-century advocate of experimental science, maintaining that ‘demonstrative’ knowledge was not possible in the natural sciences and therefore seeking to deny them the title of sciences : ‘natural philosophy offers its explanations probably rather than scientifically . . . . Only in mathematics is there science and demonstration.’
Science retained as one of its meanings any knowledge acquired by study, or any skill acquired by practice. But another meaning was also current in the language of 18th- and early 19th-century England. The claim made by Newton and rejected by Locke was now conceded: any kind of knowledge acquired byobservation or experiment was freely called scientific and admitted to the company of the older sciences, which had not yet lost their claim to that title. The precise classifications of the philosophies and theirconstituent Sciences were the technical jargon of the Universities; outside the classrooms a related, though looser, usage held–the terms philosophy and science were interchangeable in certain connexions: e.g.,experimental science or experimental philosophy; and moral science or moral philosophy.
The period of synonymity lasted about fifty years, approximately 1800-1850; increasingly during that time the consensus of opinion favoured the allocation of philosophy to the theological and metaphysical, and science to the experimental and physical branches of knowledge. We see the latter word brought into prominence with its modern meaning in the creation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831).
The word science in common speech came to have the dominant meaning of ‘natural and physical science,’ while other applications sank into disuse. The growing prestige of physical science in the 19th century explains why it could thus arrogate to itself the word previously used for all knowledge.
With the new meaning of science the need to designate a man of science became more pressing. Hitherto philosopher had served, but, as I have said, philosophy had narrowed in meaning to exclude natural philosophy, except in the minds and mouths of an older generation. An English man of science who called himself a philosopher now did so rather self-consciously, or hastened to qualify the name with the adjectives ‘experimental’ or ‘natural.’
Today, science denotes more than physical science: any discipline is said to be scientific when it consciously employs mental attitudes and techniques developed by practitioners of physical science: skepticism of authority; dispassionate description of phenomena; the framing of hypotheses capable of being tested; and the measurement of the limits of reliability of data. Examples of this usage occur in the expressions ‘the biological sciences’ and ‘the social sciences,’ both of which were in use before the end of the 19th century. One observes, however, that a higher status is claimed by and generally accorded to the physical and biological sciences, and to physics in particular. Perhaps as a result, physicists display an intellectual arrogance and snobbishness that is sufficiently pronounced to be recognizable as a professional characteristic. JC comment: Ha ha
The paper presages many of the problems surrounding climate science:
The patient, dedicated men and women, the living realities of the word scientist, working in laboratories and communicating in an esoteric language only with their peers, do not satisfy the general craving for definitive answers to social, economic, and political problems, which, so the great half-educated has been led to expect, ‘science ‘ has it in its power to deliver. An abstraction named ‘ the scientist ‘ has been given form in people’s minds as a new figure of authority, corresponding to the priest or witch-doctor of a more primitive culture, whose ‘scientific’ statements can be accepted with child-like reliance. The notion is dangerous not merely because it is untrue but because it is irrational. The quest for absolute scientific validity is as hopeless as the quest for the philosopher’s stone. There may be incidental good in a political or religious philosophy that claims ‘ Scientific ‘ authority and that stands ready to identify itself with the ready-made image in the popular mind of the infallibility of science; but the willingness to assume and exploit that role betrays the unprincipled shrewdness of the publicist.
In the history of the interactions between science and society we have already experienced the effects of the missionary zeal that stems from such a combination of moral and scientific fervour; it has been the corrosive solvent of much that we may now regret having lost.
These essays, communicating many aspects of science history of which I was previously unaware, have seeded several thoughts regarding the evolving story of ‘scientist’.
I had a chuckle about the concern that “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Clearly this was a big deal a century ago; these days, scientists tend to wear their slovenliness and disregard for style as a badge of their seriousness.
This made me ask the question: What aspects of our current culture as it relates to science might be regarded as equally superficial? I see four major social/cultural drivers of change to the status of science and scientists:
I. The radical implications of the internet are acting to democratize science. Blogs are conducting post publication peer review and we are seeing the development of internet scientific communities on blogs that are acting as ‘clubs’ for independent scientists that focus on addressing scientific issues that are relevant to public debates. These developments are challenging traditional notions of expertise, especially as independent scientists are cited in the mainstream media and are invited to present evidence at government hearings. Scientists who belong to the right ‘clubs’ (universities, professional societies) regard this membership as conferring expertise in public debates involving science, and they tend to be dismissive of independent scientists. Independent scientists, in the mode of the 19th century ‘man of science’, are relegated by scientists who belong to the right clubs to a lower ‘amateur’ status (even if they publish in journals) apparently because they don’t belong to the ‘clubs’ (Nic Lewis and Steve Mosher are two examples from the climate field that have been under discussion on recent threads; Nic Lewis fits quite well the 19th century image of ‘man of science’).
II. Massive government spending on scientific research (since roughly the 1960’s), which is evolving more and more in the direction of ‘use inspired research‘, taking scientists more in the direction of ‘professional’ rather than ‘pure’. Scientists employed in universities are under increasing pressure from their universities and from funding agencies to engage with industry and policy makers. Pure research, and research and research that is at odds with prevailing paradigms on urgent issues of the day, are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain government funding (leaving these areas ripe for independent scientists that aren’t following the research $$).
III. Growing complexity of scientific problems. Scientists are being asked to address increasingly complex problems of social, economic, and political relevance. It is becoming increasingly difficult to define what constitutes ‘science’ – see these previous posts What separates science from non-science? and The scientific method. The epistemology of highly complex computer models is a major outstanding issue is scientific research on complex problems. The problems, especially wicked ones, have moral and ethical dimensions as well. Philosophy is of growing relevance to the scientific investigations of complex and wicked problems.
IV. The politicization of scientific expertise. Sydney Ross states: There may be incidental good in a political or religious philosophy that claims ‘Scientific ‘ authority and that stands ready to identify itself with the ready-made image in the popular mind of the infallibility of science; but the willingness to assume and exploit that role betrays the unprincipled shrewdness of the publicist. Well that was the perspective from 1964: this unfortunately seems to be the norm in 21st century. It is not just politicians and political advocates using science in this way (see Newton’s Laws of Expertise); a very unfortunate contributor to this problem is issue advocacy by scientists themselves.
OK, so what does all this imply for climate science? Climate science is arguably at the forefront of social/cultural drivers of change to the status of science and scientists.
Because climate science transcends many disciplines (and not just those commonly recognized as ‘science’), the appellation and approach of ‘natural philosophy’ may be better suited. From the Wikipedia: Natural philosophy pertains to the work of analysis and synthesis of common experience and argumentation to explain or describe nature. The term science, as in natural science, gained its modern meaning when acquiring knowledge through experiments (special experiences) under the scientific method became its own specialized branch of study apart from natural philosophy.
And I find the democratization of climate science by internet to be absolutely fascinating, and I would like to facilitate this in any way that I can.