The robes of authority

While still in graduate I caused some controversy when presenting in classroom my view of science and how nursing does fit in it. I would say that nursing had many epistemological problems difficult to solve and I think many of my teachers, that time, did not understand the reasons. About this, I encourage those interested to make reading my monograph (in Portuguese) to better understand the discussion.

This post does not intend to address the nursing or its epistemological problems, but I wish to present a critique, almost unanimous, that came to me during my research in graduate before we get into our discussion. I heard an argument that seemed an exaggerated simplicity and superficiality to have been made by a professor of graduation. They told me “if you think that nursing is not science, what are you doing here?” or “if nursing were not science would not be in university.

There is no disagreement about importance of science, but I wish to call attention to the kind of importance attached to it. I think the criticisms mentioned are not speaking about conventional importance. That concerned about progress on our understanding of the nature or the fruits of technological arising from scientific discoveries. I think the criticism meaning something like: “if it is not science, it’s not important.”

The critique reveals how our society puts credit in science, although do not give the due gratefulness and respect to scientists. We use the fruits of science in our day-to-day and only occasionally realize it. Science is a human activity, doubtless one of the most important, but is not the only important. In fact, having an undergraduate degree in a particular field of knowledge does not imply that this matter is a science. In fact, the presence of a course at a university expresses is society’s demands for a particular role in it. The university must qualify for these functions so that civilization continues to operate satisfactorily.

Some people go to university and become scientists, with suitable training, can actually do science. I’m a popularizer of science, and as such I have great concern about the way that science is presented to non-experts. The newscasts are experts in showing old search results as if they were news and make a big hype when some research seems promising.

When some group publishes results of studies about aging, media exploits our imaginary proclaiming that science is near to discover the secret of immortality. When we disclose research results to new therapeutic targets, the media says we’re near to find cures for diseases yet incurable. This is an old habit of journalism unskilled and not surprising, but worries.

The scientist is a human being like any other and has nothing special that makes it better or worse than anyone else. However, the scientist has a duty not to propagate the belief in the supernatural since its function is to study nature in conformity with the natural laws. Events or unexplained phenomena do not belong to the domain of the supernatural, but the domain of the unknown. The unknown, in turn, is temporal. Until 1993 we did know nothing about existence of micro-RNA and today is a very useful tool in medical research.

When scientists stand in favor of the supernatural, as did the geneticist Francis Collins, the public gets a huge enhancement to justify their own belief in the supernatural. How often I hear out there, “if the genome project director believes, mean that there is evidence. He is a renowned scientist.” Some people pass through near-death experience and become too religious for having experienced something very personal. What indeed we know is that some people have experiences so intense that promote a dramatic change in his way of seeing things, but that does not change the shape of things itself. A scientist in his work routine, faced with things without explanation and uses what he know about nature to try to understand the phenomenon. If even with all the available tools do not get an explanation, it does not allow us to conclude that the phenomenon is supernatural, but simply that we do not try enough or that there are experimental constraints.

I’m not suggesting that scientists should all be atheists, but they should always remember the power that ideas have on society when they are pronounced. Even when things have no known explanation they will be in accordance with natural laws. There is no need to invoke the supernatural, even because not is a bona fide explanation. When the scientist accepts the supernatural is coming into conflict with their own daily activity.

Another case is when we have an insight that seems very interesting. We often fall in love with these ideas, because they are unique and, in some cases, really interesting. This attachment sometimes leads us to assume that the idea is true. It’s like a dialogue in our head and it says, “it would not be awesome if it were real?” So we assume it’s real, without even applying the appropriate filters. Some scientists assume this posture recklessly making public pronouncements as: “Evolution is a theory and has not been fully proven” or “if evolution is true or not, is something that cannot be proved.” In the first example, the real purpose is usually to show that not all yet been explained by evolution. But who says not reject the fact that species change over time and selective pressures makes emerge new species. The second case is the purest ignorance merged with a poor philosophy. This causes more confusion in public understanding. The public then assumes that if there is a permanent controversy among scientists is because the issue is not decided and then can take intelligent design or any other aberration as a valid theory. My suggestion is: if you are a scientist, be careful with the form and content of what you says in public because there is audience and it will take seriously.

Creative Commons License
This work by Alison Felipe Alencar Chaves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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