September 27, 1990


Many scientists are believers, not skeptics. If these were the only kinds of scientist, the Sun would still be revolving around the Earth.

There are great differences among scientists. At one extreme are some very original thinkers. At the other end are people whose minds are so closed that it would take a major explosion to get even the suggestion of a new idea into them.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. We don't expect all physicians, carpenters or automobile mechanics to be equally competent, even though they do go by the same name. Why scientists?

A scientist's work isn't to design and make things. That is the job of applied scientists, engineers and their ilk. While much of scientific advancement is a direct result of technological achievement and there is a good deal of overlap; "pure" science deals with the discovery of the truth.

A scientist's impact on that body of knowledge which is called scientific is measured by how much a particular scientist has contributed to that body of knowledge. Some make key discoveries, which snowball into entire new sciences. Others advance their fields slowly and painfully. Some retard progress by publishing stuff that isn't true and faking experimental results. Some do little more than draw paychecks.

The public thinks that the best scientists are the ones who are members of the National Academy of Science, those who win the Nobel Prize or those who write widely acclaimed books.

It may come as a surprise to many, that the ones who will make the great discoveries in the next twenty years are not members of this elite group. The members of the scientific elite have already made their discoveries and their major functions are now as teachers, administrators, members of committees and boards of directors. They decide who will be admitted to the Important Scientist Club. They are no longer engaged in the business of research, although there are some very notable exceptions.

The creative scientists, whose work will advance our understanding, are people no one has heard of. Some may become famous, although most will not. Some will have their discoveries acclaimed soon after they are made, some will only be recognized after their death, and some of the best may never be recognized at all. Their contribution will help others, who will never know who it was who helped them.

Another group, whose impact on human knowledge and understanding will be zilch, are the scientist politicians. These are the ones who get their Ph.D. and then set out to change the world. I am not saying that they are of no use and that they are not important to our social fabric. We need agents of social change. I am simply saying that what they are doing is not science, but politics.

I was trained as a scientist and, for 25 years, that was what I did. What I am doing now is not science. You can call it what you like: writing, scribbling, education, rabble-rousing, whatever! My opinions on science may have more validity than the man on the street, but not much more. My opinions on other matters may be colored by my scientific training. I certainly don't expect anyone to attach special importance to my stuff because it has the Seal of Approval of The Scientific Community. I don't even expect to be believed. This is not so with scientist-politicians. Their effectiveness, as with religious prophets, depends on their being believed. For them science is a symbol; a flag that the public can get behind.

Li'l Abner said "Ah believes in big words". Some people believe in Science. As with most things that people "believe", they do so because they just don't understand much about it.

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