Science, scientists and superstitions – The Hindu

The scientific mindset, with its beliefs and prejudices, can be judged only in the context of the intellectual milieu it functions in 

The scientific mindset, with its beliefs and prejudices, can be judged only in the context of the intellectual milieu it functions in 

It is not unusual to come across good scientists nursing superstitious beliefs. Science, as a way of thinking, is an intellectual attitude that values experience and evidence over popular opinions and authority. As such, science is antithetical to superstition. Given this, what explains the strange phenomenon of scientists entertaining blind beliefs?

People who do science might broadly be divided into two categories: scientific minds and science workers. The run-of-the-mill jobs that scientists do — observation, experimentation, verification and falsification, theorisation and so on — are done mostly by science workers.

In addition to being good at such work, a scientific mind needs to be an intellectual. She is basically someone who, alongside being a good science worker, has imbibed the virtues of critical thinking. She has understood the truth of her work in the larger philosophical context of the trustworthiness of human knowledge. Reality-based thinking has become her nature and it shapes her understanding across fields. She is therefore a scientist in a truer sense. This view might attract a strong objection. Would it be wise to regard a colossus like Newton, known for his several occult beliefs, as a mere science worker? Assuredly not.

Intellectual milieu

All of us are citizens of our times and the scientific mindset, with its beliefs and prejudices, can be judged only in the context of the intellectual milieu it functions in.

It is, therefore, hasty and imprudent to judge a 17th century figure’s aptitude for scientific thinking by current standards. Suffice it to clarify that if a good physicist were to sport Newton’s occult beliefs today, he would only qualify to be a good science worker and not a good scientific mind.

In short, what explains the phenomenon of scientists sporting blind beliefs is the fact that not all science workers can qualify as scientific minds.

The possibility of a science worker doing extraordinary science with his creative prowess cannot be altogether precluded. Only, it would be a freak event.

Creativity and imagination are aided by freethinking and smothered by dogmatic beliefs.

A freethinking scientist would be better at his work than his belief-bound clone.

Krishnagl@iisc.ac.in

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