Science does not need a universal symbolS

Science and its supporters, asserts bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, are in dire need of their own emblem — a "symbolic unifier" that could be to science what Ichthys is to Christianity.

What symbol could possibly stand for all of science? Wolpe offers no suggestions, merely noting that it would have to be simple, versatile, instantly recognizable, and all-encompassing; "a double helix alone," he says, wouldn't make the cut, "as it does not take in astronomy or particle physics."

The idea may sound appealing at first — but upon further examination, the plausibility of a universal symbol for science comes across as silly, and maybe even a little dubious. Not that the things it would stand for — "the integrity of the endeavour, the need for rigorous objectivity in politics and education, and the need for clear jurisdictional boundaries between religion, ideology and science," in Wolpe's words — aren't worth believing in, defending, or advocating in a more public fashion. (I agree with Wolpe's sentiment that the scientifically minded tend to be less visible in the community.) But a single, unified symbol seems to go against so many of the very things it would stand to represent.

Science is constantly progressing in ways that would make a unified symbol seem short-sighted, or even presumptuous. A symbol would reinforce criticism from those who argue that science is more cronyism and ivory-tower intellectualism than it is intense self-reflection, rigorous re-evaluation, and ruthless scrutiny. A symbol is a generalization. Situated beside the enterprise of scientific inquiry, a universal symbol — a "bumper sticker," as Wolpe puts it — somehow feels cheap, gimmicky, lazy.

But maybe I'm all wet. I encourage you to check out the full editorial over at New Scientist.