It’s Time to Shake Science’s Superiority Complex

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Science isn’t the only way of knowing. How can we capture that nuance in our work and on our T-shirts?

By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange


One of the most important tips I’ve learned from the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) and from working with communities is not to take science too seriously. As scientists, I think one of our biggest challenges is our belief in science. To borrow a beautiful, albeit geeky, phrase, we tend to assume the epistemic superiority of science. Some of us not only believe that science is a good way to know things, but that it is the best or even the only way to know things. Often that belief isn’t something we are totally aware of, but it leaks out in various ways. For example:

  • Volunteering to work with city council because “I want government to make evidence-based decisions, but I know I’ll have to dumb it down to a fifth-grade level.”
  • Signs at a March for Science that say “Science, not Religion.”
  • Our tendency to think that if we could just provide enough evidence, we’d change people’s minds about global warming.
  • Science talks, especially talks delivered to general audiences, that leave out the personalities, motivations, benefits and struggles that are part of science. Just the facts may work for Dragnet, but it makes for a boring talk.
  • T-shirts that say, “The cool thing about science is it’s true whether you believe it or not.”
  • Believing that science is great because it’s a meritocracy—all that matters is your ideas, not who you are.
  • Using science to “validate” indigenous or local knowledge.
  • Lecturing about the science that is going on in a place to the people in that place, as if they had not lived there their whole lives.

The most blatant of these examples explicitly say that science is right and other things are wrong. The more subtle expressions telegraph that science is more important than other considerations, and it is ok to neglect those lessor considerations.

No matter what you believe, this just isn’t helpful. Even if you think people should be convinced by evidence, we aren’t as rational as we’d like to think. Even if you’d like science to be about ideas, regardless of the source, personalities and biases will intrude. Even if you’d like to talk only about science, no one will remember your talk if you do. Signs that say “Science, not Religion” don’t change anyone’s mind, they just suggest that spiritually-minded people aren’t welcome.

So, what can you do instead? Some examples I’ve seen:

  • Volunteering to work with city council because “I want to learn more about how government works, and I see how I can offer evidence in a way that is usable for busy people who need to weigh that evidence along with a complicated array of other factors.”
  • Signs at a March for Science that say, “So bad, even introverts are here.” (See, you can still be a little clever.) Or “Remember polio? Me neither. Thanks, science.” (You can still be edgy.)
  • Letting go of trying to talk people into fighting global warming, and instead trying to help people achieve the goals they want in ways that also help fight global warming. It’s not about asking people to spend their time fighting climate change, or even convincing them that fighting climate change has benefits for their primary goals. It’s about helping them reach their primary goals while benefitting climate change.
  • Science talks, especially talks delivered to general audiences, that tell stories, reveal characters, and talk about motivations. Looking for new ways to organize meetings, not just defaulting to presentations and posters in parallel sessions because that is the typical way it is done in science.
  • T-shirts that say, “I stopped assuming the epistemological superiority of science,” “Science, just one of the many services I offer,” “Science, one tool in the great big toolbox of life,” or maybe even “Science, a flavor of empiricism.” (Okay, none of these T-shirts actually exist, and honestly, I need help with this. What would a good T-shirt look like?)
  • Asking about what people have observed where they live.

Coming back to the notion of not taking science too seriously, the most effective TEX partnerships have come from scientists who approach their work with communities with humility and a sense of humor. These scientists reflect on the way they do the things, and they are open to – even looking for – new ways to do things. They observe and learn from those around them. They make the time and space for community members to talk, and they listen actively—not just for ideas, but to understand people’s values, aspirations, and even their epistemologies. They assume that their partners are just as knowledgeable as them, but in different areas. They assume that other fields are just as rigorous and challenging as science, and they aren’t worried about how other people rank science as a way of knowing.

Science, with humility—maybe that is a T-shirt?

mgoodwin editor