Pillar of Science VI: Community Examination

Scientific Results are Examined Collaboratively.

Scientists do not work alone, but in a particular kind of community.  The last stage of a research project is publishing and explaining the results.  Assuming these results get noticed, this begins the process of further review, critique, confirmation and rebuttal by other scientists.  No one person is smart enough to see things from all angles.  We need help from others to look in a clearer, less fragmented way.  Perhaps one could call this undivided looking?

Science is not just a set of facts, or an abstract procedure for testing ideas.  It is an ethical, truth-seeking community.  The love of truth is embodied in the alliance of particular, fallible humans, united by a common geeky interest in finding something out.  Together we create a public deposit of information which can be used to find new things out.

Because the community as a whole is truth-seeking, in the long run it reduces the need to trust the competency and ethics of the original researchers.  If someone fakes an experiment (or else just makes an innocent mistake), other people will be unable to replicate the result, and eventually the truth will come out.

Healthy scientific collaboration encourages reasonable dissent.   Otherwise group-think can insulate the community from effective criticism of accepted ideas.  Some people say that scientists should proportion their beliefs to the evidence.  However, there's also some value in diversity of opinion, because it permits subgroups to work on unpopular hypotheses.  I suppose things work best when the scientific community taken as a whole proportions its research work to the evidence.

One might argue that collaboration is not strictly necessary to Science.  Imagine a solo scientist doing careful experiments in secret, and drawing the correct conclusions from them.  (Even in this case the scientist would be drawing on public ideas which had gone before, "standing on the shoulders of giants", as the saying goes.)  But in practice, the benefits of discussion are so great that it's hard to imagine a successful modern scientist working completely alone.  Hence the symbiosis of Science with the Academy.

Individuals who think they can revolutionize Science all by themselves are almost always crackpots, the sort of crazy person I described one pillar ago.  If you want to see clearly, you have to expose yourself to the light.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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One Response to Pillar of Science VI: Community Examination

  1. Luke says:

    Hear, hear!! I love this post, thanks :)

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