Science Creep is a Menace

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Apr 23, 2024
The editor-in-chief of a preeminent scientific journal should know what a "scientist" is – and isn't. Holden Thorp, the editor of the journal Science, does not.

Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious journal Science, described on Substack a discussion during the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the closing plenary session, he posed to a "panel of scientific leaders" the question, "Who is a scientist?" The answers "ranged from very narrow (just people who are doing or planning research) all the way to very broad (every living human)."

Then Thorp offered his opinion:

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'.

The problem with that formulation is that Thorp doesn't define what is included in and, more importantly, excluded from who meaningfully "contributes to the scientific enterprise." So, what we're left with is yet another "Let's all hold hands around the campfire and sing kumbaya" exercise. Or, as my colleague Dr. Chuck Dinerstein put it, "a more erudite version of 'everyone gets a trophy.'"

According to Thorp's definition, even members of anti-science groups and outright quacks who promulgate dangerous disinformation could also be said to be participating in "science communication" and, therefore, be "scientists."

Coincidentally, on Feb. 21, a day before Thorp's posting, the Washington Post published an exposé of four such groups — Children's Health Defense, Frontline Doctors, Informed Consent Action Network, and Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance — that have enjoyed a financial bonanza from "routinely buck[ing] scientific consensus," such as by selling quack nostrums and raising unfounded doubts about the safety of vaccines. Apparently, according to Thorp, they're just unorthodox scientists performing science communication -- kind of like Edwin Goodwin, the amateur mathematician who convinced Indiana legislators to try to help science along by redefining the value of pi as 3.2.

Also inexplicable in this article by the editor-in-chief of a preeminent science journal is Thorp's failure to mention that researchers who improperly manipulate data or purchase manuscripts from "paper mills," a huge and expanding problem, should be expelled from the fraternity of legitimate scientists.

The first two comments following Thorp's Substack post took him to task along similar lines.

The first consisted of a quote from a 2016 California Institute of Technology commencement speech by surgeon and writer Atul Gawande:

Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn't a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense.

Here is the second:

A scientist is someone who follows the scientific method. Period.

Unfortunately, we have reached a point in our culture where almost no one knows what the scientific method is, anymore.

Broadening the definition of scientist out so much that it is meaningless is not helpful. This is a signature element of those forces of darkness that are frantic to destroy science; redefine the meaning of words so that no one knows what they are talking about anymore.

I knew well two previous highly distinguished editors of Science, Daniel Koshland and Donald Kennedy. They would have been incapable of Thorp's New Age drivel.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Washington Examiner.

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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