I recently finished reading The Case of the Midwife Toad, by Arthur Koestler. It was a good book, definitely worth the read. The work focuses on the dispute between the neo-Darwin clan and Lamarckian proponents of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
The personal disputes that formed the core of the book’s narrative stirred feelings of ambivalence for me. On the one hand, it is a little comforting that scientists, even the most brilliant, engage in the same petty squabbles and petulant exchanges you would associate with guests on the Jerry Springer show. In other words – them scientists is just like us.
But the details of this exchange are also troubling – these feuds among scientists create the holes where ideologues (i.e., creationists, antienvironment activists) hammer in their wedges, pumping up technical debates to create the illusion of a shaky foundation and uncertainty on fundamental issues. And then they drive their own beliefs through these gaps.
Hence, a scientific debate on the effects of global warming on wildfires and hurricane activity becomes grounds for a very nonscientific pundit like Glenn Beck to dispute the whole phenomenon of climate change.
Science is vulnerable to attack from systems that deal in currency outside its own value system. Science deals in doubt, skepticism, and likelihood, while religion and politics traffic in certitude, complete certainty, the absence of doubt (to the point that they cannot see their hypocrisy from one day to the next).
So ideological groups are able to exploit a quality of science – plus our tendency to error on the side of excess – in order to promote their agenda, as faulty as it may be. As long as scientists engage in petty spats like what was detailed in The Case of the Midwife Toad, then they will remain at risk of being railroaded in public forums – and losing on the larger issues of public policy.