Scientific Community #1 – The Scientific Method is People

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Max Planck

A while ago I did a presentation at a student conference about “The Scientific Community — Science as a Social Process”. It dealt with the influence your colleagues have on your scientific career, esp. in their role as peer-reviewers and editors.

The reactions to this presentation in the discussion round were … mixed, but encouraging. While the first person who raised his hand did ask incredulously “Didn’t your supervisor tell you these things?”, the other participants showed quickly that there are cases where PhD students do not know these things.

And that was exactly the reason for that presentation.

If you have a good PhD/Post-Doc position, you should not notice the importance of the community, because it’s just … natural. Like the air you breath. But you will choke to death if you do not know it — and if you don’t know that you don’t know it.

Personally, the role of the community was something I noticed only implicitly when I was blundering around, learning from experience. But it became visible to me after I had read “Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals” by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler. They provided me with words to talk about the community and my place in it (or, rather, outside of it). It also fit with other information I had read earlier about the origin of knowledge and the scientific method.

The Scientific Method

There is this nice view of science working by the “scientific method” — starting with an idea or hypothesis, doing experiments, the results supporting or not supporting a theory, etc. pp. Science is seen as objective, looking only at the evidence free from human subjectivity and bias. It’s all nice and beautiful, but it’s not really how science works.

And it can’t work this way, because the scientific method is people.

After all, what is knowledge? Referring to the works of Deanna Kuhn (see, e.g., this posting) and using the evaluative level for science, you cannot determine reality directly. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is something that is generated by human minds and is always uncertain. You have to make judgments — compare different explanations based on arguments and evidence. This does not mean that you must not have a personal opinion, but when you are speaking as a scientist — and thus, with the authority that this (still) conveys — you have to refer to a judgment based on arguments and evidence.

And that judgment is man-made. The scientific community — other researchers, i.e., human beings — determine the quality of the arguments and evidence. It is never independent of the people who make this judgment. Even as a researcher you strongly influence the outcome. Data never speaks for itself — the degrees of freedom you have in conducting an investigation are just too great. For example, you shape the outcome by selecting a certain topic, a certain research question, using certain definitions, certain operationalizations and methods, certain ways of analyzing and interpreting the data.

Yes, “science corrects itself”, but science is not a dog shaking itself to get rid of water or fleas (good luck with the later). It’s the people in the community deciding that other theories are better, because the predictions are more accurate or the theories are more fruitful for research.

If you are working in science, you are interacting with other scientists who work on the same/similar topics and who will determine — in their role of peer reviewers of conferences and journals and research agencies whether your work has any merit. They are the field judging your individual work in the domain as creative or not (to refer to Csikszentmihalyi).

Limits of the Scientific Community

This does NOT mean that contacts, networking, nepotism, lobbying, insider deals, and the like are more important or even nearly as important than the quality of your arguments and your empirical evidence.  Nor that you need to kiss at lot of asses to be successful. It’s not like that and it’s certainly no mutual agreement of what is deemed right independent of the evidence.

After all, there are limits to what (people in) the community can get away with. Bad data, bad arguments, bad theory — it might not be as visible as in engineering where things explode or sink, but it does get noticed — very negatively. And as a scientist you do have a responsibility to act with (research) integrity.

And the community does act as a corrective here — you might get attention if you do things wrong or reinvent the wheel, but the kind of attention that consists of scaring comments by (anonymous) peer-reviewers. The peer-reviewers and editors decide what gets admitted to conferences/published and thus known to the community at large. They also make sure that the scientific discussion with argument and evidence stays on topic and on a high level of quality.

However, sometimes the community is a bit too strict in guarding what gets admitted. It can develop a certain ‘herd mentality’, e.g., regarding it’s methods (e.g., still using p-values in psychology despite DECADES of criticism) or topics (e.g., a vicious circle of mainstream funding could create false results, see Gold’s 1989 article in a ‘fringe science’ journal).

Part of this mentality is perfectly understandable. Just imagine realizing that you have “wasted the last 10 years of your life” because someone refuted your theory or found a better way of explaining the data. Plancks words in the beginning of this posting probably describe the situation best. It’s hard to be logical and detached in those moments. Spock might have said:

“Emotions are alien to me. I’m a scientist.”
Spock in Star Trek TOS:
“This Side of Paradise”

but human beings do not have that luxury.

Science is a very emotional activity — curiosity, interest, despair, anger, joy — esp. when it comes to getting recognition by the scientific community. And sometimes the scientific community in form of colleagues, peer-reviewers and editors is not rational, is not objective, is not logical. They are comprised of humans and humans are emotional, subjective, and frequently prefer small short-term gains over long-term major gains. Some are even outright unethical and discard research integrity to get an advantage when it comes to publishing or perishing (just have a look at retractionwatch).

The Upsides of ‘The Scientific Method is People’ and the role of the Scientific Community in Science

But while this might sound negative and downright disappointing (if you think that science is objective and about the ‘truth’), there are two major advantages.

First, although we never know reality and truth, science does get better over time — theories improve, measurements get better, our understanding grows. Asimov probably said it best with:

“… when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
“The Relativity of Wrong” by Isaac Asimov

And second, the role of community of other human beings in science also means that science is not devoid of emotion and human contact and interaction. You work with other people, in a community. And here, Pratchett probably said it best:

“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, but by people being fundamentally people.”
Terry Pratchett

What’s more, while they can be irrational nut-bags, working on interesting topics and discussing the evidence with very smart people can be very stimulating. That a huge plus side to the scientific method as people and the scientific community in general.

Conclusion: You must become part of the, or rather your, scientific community

However, it requires you to enter that community, the specific scientific community that deals with your topics in your discipline. You need to take part in that discussion as an equal partner. If you mange it, your results get distributed. The community can even help you develop your identity as a scientist, allowing you to make a case for your research findings and show their significance. And as Thomason & Kamler beautifully write, much of that communication is in writing by articles in journals:

“This capacity to imagine oneself as an authoritative scholar engaged in an ongoing conversation with others, and the text as the means of connecting with others and saying something that matters, is central to the publication process.”
Thomson & Kamler, 2013

In this sense, whether you make it or not as a scientist depends not only on the scientific quality of your work, but also (very strongly) on whether you get accepted by the community — the peers working on the same topic who evaluate your research as peer-reviewers and editors. Otherwise, you will not get published and without publishing papers you will perish, at least if you want to make an Academic career.

In the next posting of this series (probably tomorrow or in the next few days), I talk a bit more about your appearance in your scientific community and some factors which I consider helpful.

 

References:

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Gold, T. (1989). New Ideas in Science. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3(2), 103-112.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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