Tag Archives: philosophy of science

The Most Important Sentence

In his Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman imagines the following scenario: some cataclysm destroys all scientific knowledge, but modern scientists have the opportunity to pass down a single sentence to future generations. What should that sentence be? What single statement would allow future generations to rebuild science? That sentence, Feynman argues, would state the atomic

Motivated Numeracy

To know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic.” —Paul See de Man

20131019_FBD001_0Lately, public media has been expressing increased skepticism towards scientific practices. Consider the recent cover articles in The Economist: How Science Goes Wrong and Trouble in the Lab. In the latter article, Jason Ford artfully depicts scientists in labs that would make EH&S shiver, sweeping poorly conducted experiments and data under the rug. These articles indeed resurface the problems shaped by incentive systems, such as publishing models. They also point out how the disavowal of null results by high impact journals may ultimately promote unethical practices for those who wish to stay in the publication pipeline.

Scientists as people are not the disinterested, communistic, universal, and organized obeyers of the ideals of science proposed by Robert Merton, though they are expected to be when conducting experiments. What The Economist fails to acknowledge is that although scientists are people preserving self-interests (just as any other professional), science itself constantly destroys and reconstructs new hypotheses across fields (in line with Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift). Science has self-revision at the core of its process. If an experiment was conducted poorly and the results significant, scientists have the right and expectation to challenge it by conducting their own experiments.

In contrast, the Economist article makes it seem like the mistakes within science are a problem with science itself. Although the problems identified are important to rectify within science, and indeed doing so should be a part of science, it would be a great exaggeration to treat science as though it were broken. What must be acknowledged, in spite of identifiable problems in scientific practices, is “how science goes right” for the most part, and the problems in it should not provoke a skepticism of the entire practice.

If the practices enforced by science correct for cheaters, then should we be concerned by these articles from The Economist? If their goal is to stir public distrust of science, then it is time to reconsider all of the technology (that arose from these “dirty” practices) upon which society depends. Again, these authentic accomplishments are undermined in the guise of inauthentic scientific practices (consider the Paul See de Man quote that introduces this article).

There is an important ideological question raised by this article. Is the underlying message of, or inevitable reaction to, the article one that convinces people that they need to give greater support to science and help facilitate the development of better scientific practices? Or instead, is the message that the public should indulge in politically motivated negative attitudes towards science itself, and divest (metaphorically or literally) in scientific progress. This latter possibility is particularly unsettling given some of the popular politicized positions taken towards issues such as climate change, vaccinations, and the environment.

A Modern Recipe for Scientific Revolutions: Inspired by Thomas Kuhn, Condensed by BSR

Thomas Kuhn, world-renowned philosopher and historian of science, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions while teaching at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. Kuhn took on the challenge of describing the historical and sociological setting of academic scientists, in the manner one would describe, “What is water?” to deep-sea fishes.

Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!). Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!).
Image is the author’s own.

At the time of publication, it was not the easiest medicine to digest for extreme orthodox practitioners of science. Surprisingly, his lessons are extremely relevant in present-day discussions of scientific discourse. (One example is academic publishing, which will be discussed by an evolving manifesto at the 4S conference this October.)