City of Brass

City of Brass

Copenhagen dreaming: In defense of the scientific method

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

As the Copenhagen conference on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol draws near, I want to lay some meta-thoughts out about the scientific method which I think are important, as a context for my general support of the theory of global warrming and the need for decisive action by our own nation to reduce carbon emissions and embrace alternative forms of energy (including nuclear). The next post in this series will then lay out my position on global warming specifically.

The debate about Global Warming, not unlike that regarding AIDS, or evolution, boils down to this: the Scientific Method is an attempt by human beings to establish rigorous theories drawn from empirical observations, for the purpose of creating models of reality, so that these models may be employed in some pragmatic fashion. When this method is applied to a topic that is insulated from what I call the Political Method, there’s not much controversy to be had. However, the “employed in some pragmatic fashion” part above is where the outcomes of the SM start encroaching on the PM and then battle lines are drawn.

Science is not a clean affair. Its hard, for one thing, and it requires a lot of art in some ways. The basic task of taking measurements is pretty consensus-prone, but everything downstream to that is subject to the old adage, TMTOWTDI. In science, the way things are done usually settles on what has worked before. Science is conservative that way.

The SM method provides an internal mechanism for disputes, however – publishing. Proponents of a minority view who are challenging an orthodoxy often tend to scream conspiracy and exclusion from the literature, but the fact remains that the scientific literature is by far the most open system for dissent that the human race has ever devised. This is because, fundamentally, science rewards its iconoclasts instead of punishing them. The reason for this is a function of the funding system, which penalizes anything that isn’t “novel”.

The reason that orthodoxy develops in science is because of the mass of literature that accretes over time. Anyone trying to challenge an orthodoxy who simply waves away pre-existing literature as being corrupt or dishonest or conspiratorial is essentially repudiating the system at a fundamental level. Are only the dissenters against orthodoxy the ones with a professional ethos, with ethics and pride in their work? To hear the dissenters gripe, you’d think that they were the sole bearers of the flame of Science and everyone else is a charlatan. Any argument which strays into this territory not only can be dismissed, it must be dismissed. Anyone willing to burn the system down is someone whose own motivations are far more suspect than the thousands of scientists who have dedicated their lives to their field and are willing to play by the rules.

The single biggest (and potentially most cogent) critique that the dissenters make is that the peer review system is essentially a “social network”. Well, they’re right. It is indeed a social network, of experts in a field. But if you don’t do science you can be forgiven for assuming this makes everyone in a field, esecially a small one, seem like pals on facebook all playing the same inane games and joining the same groups and causes ad infinitum. In reality, the smaller the field, the more concentrated the competition. Every research group tries to outdo the other, because the funding game (again, which only cares about “novelty”) is literally zero-sum. That said, for the good of the field, everyone does come together and write joint papers for special issues of various journals, review papers and collaborations on multi-center trials or studies. That’s part of paying your dues for the good of the field as a whole. But having written a paper with someone – even ten papers – is not an abdication of your ethical responsibilities. Nor would it be very good for your career to be someone else’s “yes man”. In fact, you’d lose funding and be out of a job if all you ever did was agree with your peers. Very few people outside the system really understand just how precarious most research groups’ existences really are, or just how unbelievably damaging it would be to scientists’ livelihoods to act in such a cartoon fashion. Indeed, you cant teach a man a thing if his career depends on him not knowing it, but in science the opposite is true – you can’t stop a man from learning something in science, because his career depends on him learning it.

Are there flaws in peer review? Oh, Yes. And it’s scientists who are at the forefront of self-evaluation and addressing those flaws. If scientists were all Vulcan or robots it would be a non-issue; instead, they are just human beings, and that means they have to accept some basic level of fundamental flaw, and seek to minimize the damage as best they can. The peer review system is not static, it’s continually being refined and tweaked, and like democracy it may suck at times but still remains better than anything else by a longshot.

We don’t do science by press release. We do it by trial, error, and publishing. If you can’t get your amazing challenge to the orthodoxy published, its not because “They” are silencing you, its because you don’t have the data. If you are right – and you may well be! – then doing the due diligence is your responsibility.

Fundamentally, the consensus in science isn’t an illusion or a conspiracy. It has meaning, and it has validity, and deserves to be taken at face value. That’s not to say that the dissenters should be ignored, but until such time as they are able to change that consensus by the virtue of their evidence and their arguments, they cannot be allowed to impede progress.

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