Before the printing press, there were very few books. It was extremely hard to learn math; you had to pay a tutor. Of course literacy was very low — but all knowledge that could be transmitted through books (such as math) was very low.
Science cannot be taught through books. You can learn a lot about calculus by reading books. You can learn almost nothing important about science. Science is not a collection of facts, it is a method, a way of gathering knowledge. Almost always it is taught by doing — by working in a lab, for example. Just as, before printed books, almost no one could do any math, it is true today that almost no one can do any science. (Most doctors think the bigger the sample size, the better.)
If you look at a biology textbook, it is full of conclusions. It says practically nothing about the process by which those conclusions were reached. For some reason biologists have decided not to teach that — perhaps because it is difficult and messy to teach. And someone might be offended. Whatever the reason, the process goes undescribed. And it’s all sciences, not just biology. (Until recently, economists avoided teaching data. At least in introductory economics, data was too messy for them.)
As long as you have to learn science by doing it practically no one will understand it — just as almost no one did math when you had to hire a tutor to learn it. But now we have the Internet. And blogs. Two new things have entered the picture: a great deal of emotion (blogs are full of emotion, unlike textbooks); and unlimited space. Now science can begin to be taught without actually doing an apprenticeship. If you add enough emotion, anything becomes riveting. And there is now plenty of room for all the false starts and messy details. I suppose most scientists who blog are too worried about being dignified to say anything emotional or messy, but that doesn’t matter because there are so many bloggers.
According to Stephen Dubner, “if you are fan of science, this [Climategate] is a pretty grim day.” I think it’s a great day. As great as the day the first math text was printed. It’s the first time a large number of people are getting a real lesson in science. Mainstream media coverage is pathetic but there are so many bloggers it doesn’t matter. You can read about it endlessly. As you do, you will painlessly and unforgettably learn what Leonard Syme taught his students for years, and what I blogged about a few weeks ago: The apparent consensus on any difficult issue is more fragile than it looks. You are learning how conclusions are actually arrived at. It isn’t pretty — which textbook writers and professors, seeking dignity above all else, fail to mention.