Thinking Out Loud: Holden Thorp Gives Everyone a Trophy

As the top editor of the journal Science, Thorp's inclusive view of scientists might be well-intentioned. But the crux of the matter lies in the difference between understanding and explaining the world (the scientist's realm) and applying that knowledge in the real world (the domain of application specialists).

“My view is that everyone who contributes to the scientific enterprise is a scientist. It’s not just lab work that makes up science. It’s science policy, science communication, scientific illustration, and science education and many other things. In fact, you could make the case that our current struggles aren’t about whether we’re succeeding in the laboratory but rather whether all of the other parts of science are succeeding. Perhaps they would do better if we recognized the participants as science rather than as so-called “alternative careers.”

– Holden Thorp

Holden Thorp has had a stellar career. He was once a scientist, more specifically a chemist, but went on to pursue careers as an entrepreneur, academic administrator, and now the editor-in-chief of Science. But that quote hits me as a more erudite version of “everyone gets a trophy.” Like many of today’s pundits and bloggers, Thorp confuses scientists with those who apply or disseminate scientific findings. Despite an undergraduate degree in chemistry, a Master's in “Medical Science,” an MD, and a small collection of peer-reviewed papers, I am not a scientist – you might better describe me as an applications specialist; in the past as a surgeon, now as a science “communicator.”

To better explain the difference, I turn to the writing of a real scientist, a physicist, Carlo Rovelli, author of some engagingly written books on science, particularly Anixmandor, the OG of scientists.

“He was the first thinker able to conceive and put into practice what is now the fundamental methodological credo of modern scientists: make a thorough study of the masters, come to understand their intellectual achievements, and make these achievements their own. Then, on the basis of the knowledge so acquired, identify the errors in the masters’ thinking, correct them, and in so doing improve our understanding of the world.”

There is a lot to unpack here, but I want to point to the fact that science seeks to “explain[ing] the facts of the world in terms of the things of the world,” explaining, not acting. A scientist must first master what is known and then “identify the errors in the masters’ thinking, [and] correct them.” None of the individuals identified by Thorp, outside the scientist doing the lab work, is responsible for identifying errors or making corrections. They, like me, are application specialists.

“The explicit goal of scientific research is not to make correct quantitative predictions; it is to understand how the world works. What does this mean? It means building and developing an image of the world, which is to say a conceptual structure for thinking about the world, effective and consistent with what we know and learn about the world itself.

It [science] is not definitive knowledge, it is not complete knowledge. It is the best available knowledge.”

Much of the punditry, acrimony, and ignorance in the past few years in “Science” is over correct quantitative predictions and the application of those predictions by politicians, public health officials, and regulatory agencies – the application specialists. For various, perhaps prideful or ignorant reasons, all of these groups have conflated “best available” with “definitive.”  Those same groups, along with other application specialists, the pundits who televise, tweet, tik tok, or write, often seek to further “stir the pot” by ascribing various “evil” or “harmful” intentionality to the behavior of their opponents. Why might that be?

Of course, in the digital age, we must begin with the simple fact that communicating IN ALL CAPS gets your attention, whether the font or the content. I believe there is a different truth: It is our human response to uncertainty, hardwired by evolution, co-opted, and overwhelmed by an information tsunami, that is the problem.

Surgical care of the frail and critically ill has taught me to live with uncertainty. In the end, another individual is literally entrusting their life to my hands; we can both find comfort in the risk-benefit calculus, but having a patient speak to you in the morning as they enter the operating room and be silent for an eternity in the afternoon quickly disabuses you that the calculus is definitive, all we can hope is that it is best available.  

As Rovelli writes,

“Science, I believe, is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in a radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our own knowledge, and, thus, to continue learning. Therefore, the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a radical lack of certainty.”  

That is not the case for applied science, especially in public health. As Rovelli writes

“Antiscientism feeds on the disillusionment over science’s inability to deliver definitive visions of the world—on the fear of accepting ignorance. False certainties are preferred to lack of certainty.”

Our public officials are often guilty of false certainties, cloaking their actions in the public good, or ignorance, or messaging. The opposition is equally culpable, cloaking their responses in uncovering the evildoers who seek to destroy or have cabals of “special interests.” Dr. Anthony Fauci is no more a scientist today than Holden Thorpe, Dr. Joseph Lapado, or Dr. Vinay Prasad. All of them are application specialists and are subject, like all of us not actually following the scientific method as passed down from Anixmandor, liable to choose false certainty because the undeniable truth of the moment theory impacts the real world we just don’t know – and a false certainty, tempered by experience, is what allows us to hold the lives of individuals and populations in our hands.