Following the brilliant success of my attempt to explain peer review I thought I’d have a go at explaining Science next. Why restrict myself to a small canvas? Lacking confidence in such a large project, I started this post then abandoned it, but have now picked it up again, encouraged in part by ATTP’s light-hearted look and also VV on peer review. And by my own unconquerable belief in the value of my opinions.
Explaining Science is difficult, to people that don’t do it, because its, like, totally multi-faceted, maaan. And I suspect that explaining it to people that do it would be difficult too; its the shared sea that people swim in, not something they think about much.
Once upon a time – many years ago, when I was fairly new to wiki – I attempted to edit the “scientific method” page, I think, to add some stuff that seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But I ran foul of the Philosophers – or Schoolmen as Hobbes would put it – which I mention because as well as actual Science there’s a whole pile of philosophy of science. Some of it is useful – Popper on falsifiability is valuable – if not pushed too hard. But don’t confuse meta-science with science.
Science in practice
Lets start with science in practice: its what is done by scientists – or at least, what they do when they aren’t doing admin, drinking coffee or filling in grant forms (or is filling in grant forms part of science nowadays? Who knows, and I don’t care). And who is a scientist – ha ha, its someone who does science. Which is of course circular, but that’s one of the ways it is.
Another view, which fits neatly into the peer-review framework, is that science is the corpus of knowledge transmitted forwards – the scientific literature, as interpreted and added to by scientists (the difference is perhaps analogous to the alternate views of living organisms as things coded for by their genes, or alternatively merely being mechanisms for propagating genes forwards). That means not all the peer-reviewed and other literature, but only the bits of it that get read, referenced, and built on.
Science nowadays is professionalised. I’d guess that 99% of the peer-reviewed literature is produced by people working in “scientific institutes” paid to do “science” (I might have to back off on that depending on how much is produced by industry, in ways that you might not consider formally-science. Opinions? [See Eli]) The days of gentleman scientists doing a bit of science in their home laboratory before wandering off to their gentleman’s club to chat with their peers is long gone. Some of that is good, some bad: science can be “just another career” if you want, and you can go into it if you’re somewhat lacklustre, and still you can survive producing mediocre forgettable stuff. But since its not desperately well paid there isn’t much incentive to go into science unless you like it (as ever, the rules of economics apply: the total compensation for any work remains roughly the same except for exceptions, factoring all things in: since people enjoy doing science, the wages are less: what did you expect?).
Actually thinking about stuff hard and coming up with New Science is difficult. So most people don’t do that most of the time. This is where I slightly hijack a quote from VV:
Given that an important function of peer review is to give the article credibility, it is also logical that reviewers pay extra attention if an article makes strong claims, that is claims that clearly deviate from our current understanding. In an ideal world, without any time pressures, peer review would be perfect every instance. However, a run of the mill article by a well-known author is much less likely to contain problems.
Because lots of science is, if we’re honest, run-of-the-mill. Quite often RotM and worthy-but-dull, sometimes RotM and desperately trying to pretend to novelty. And then rarely, flashes of brilliance that are worth many many ordinary papers (and it would be nice to think that such brilliant papers sail through peer review, but actually they’ll probably have more trouble than the RotM ones [Update: evidence]).
I don’t really know how people Do Science. I know what I used to do: I just Did Stuff that I thought was interesting, and then tried to string it into a paper when I had enough. Its not a great way to write lots of papers though. The way to succeed at that is to plan carefully and be determined and follow through. Well, I did end up leaving. Some people are part of Vast Research Projects (small example: there were people at BAS working on the EPICA ice cores, which was probably a decade of planning, expeditioning, coring, analysing, thinking, writing up and tidying up; large example, the folk at CERN) and 95% of the people on such are going to be cogs in a mighty machine.
Building on the work of Giants
Good scientists are familiar with the literature. You can’t start from scratch (unless you’re Einstein, which you aren’t, and anyway he didn’t start from scratch either) so you have to know the literature. Naturally, before pressing “submit” on this blog post I googled “explaining science” and looked at a couple of results, but they didn’t amount to much. So I got bored with that very soon. The internet is for writing, not reading.
If I have seen further than others, it is by treading on the toes of giants
James Annan’s fine motto, of course. And a useful reminder that while conformity makes for an easy life, it only advances Science slowly, ditto your own reputation. Reputations are made by bold acts, and nothing is bolder than treading on the toes of your mighty forebears. I mention this just in case anyone should take my previous paragraphs about professionalised science as advice to just-fit-in; and as the standard reproof to the “skeptics”.
Hard line science
One possible riposte to the above is to say that professionalised and institutionalised science isn’t really science; that science depends on its fruits only which must be judged on their merits. Which is true, of course. But the people who push that line tend to have a rather odd set of judgements in my experience. And their views are often indistinguishable from “I don’t like what your science tells me, I’m just going to believe my own judgement”.
This brings us back to peer review: after the ship of fools nonsense you’d hear the “skeptics” saying, again, “but we don’t need their peer review! We judge our science on its merits”.Saying that, on hard-line theory, peer review isn’t a necessary part of Science is sort-of true, but not really in practice.
You can also try to push the hard line philosophy of science stuff: you could insist, with Popper, that science must be in principle falsifiable. Whereupon you’re a bit stuck thinking about things like astronomical observations. Or meteorological observations. Are those science? Theories build on them are clearly falsifiable, in theory. But the observations themselves aren’t. So they aren’t science. Its an attitude, and you could adopt it if you like, but you’d end up declaring large swathes of stuff that everyone thinks is science as not.
It would be easy to fill many pages with examples of antiscience taken from “skeptic” blogs. A convenient one comes to hand today from Scottish Skeptic. The topic of the post is his idea for a “journal of citizen science”, which is doomed, but in the comments we wandered off, as so often happens, to wikipedia, with SS opining that any academic who wants “original research” in wikipedia just writes a paper, sends it to their chums at their journal, publishes it then there’s damn near nothing anyone can do about it. So I (and another) said “where’s your evidence for that”? To which the reply was it was obvious what was going on. You can see where this is going, can’t you? Yes indeed, I said “do you actually have any examples?” to which SS replied Why would I want to waste my time finding examples? and I replied with the obvious “You’d want to *spend* your time finding an example because you made an assertion, and you’ve been challenged, so you need to back up your words with facts.” To which SS replied if you want me to waste my time being your errand boy then you will have to pay me. There’s a bit more there, but really it comes down to the same thing: SS makes assertions, and doesn’t even seem to understand the idea that assertions, when challenged, need to be backed up. This is such a basic tenet of science that, well, I just can’t understand his attitude.
A tiny science example
Science can sometimes just be new ways of looking at things. The picture I inlined at the top is an example. I drew it, from ECMWF re-analyses, and its included on the Atmospheric Circulation page at wiki (this isn’t a new way of looking at things for climatologists of course, its standard. I’m just expecting it will be new to some of you reader types). Contrast it with the pic here, also from the same page. Mine shows vertical velocity at mid-height, which is a nice proxy for circulation. What my pic shows is that the polar and mid-latitude cells are entirely negligible, in terms of overturning circulation, in comparison to the Hadley cell. Which itself varies strongly zonally (the stuff over Antarctica is the katabatic winds, which are strong in winter).
Other, better, examples would be the primacy of the Equivalence principle or the realisation that you need to define simultaneity.
Predictably enough I’ve failed to do justice to a subject as wide as Science and have been reduced to anecdote. But perhaps I’ll spur someone else into doing better.
Grounded by experiment
[Updated to add:] G asks: Can you say Science is grounded by experiment? This divides out maths and philosophy. And I agree, you can. You could argue it divides out string theory, too :-). Its probably rather telling that I forgot this in my first version: I didn’t do real-world experiments.
This point can be elaborated, perhaps endlessly. For example, special relativity is grounded in experiment in a way that Newton’s stuff isn’t, in the insistence on operational definitions of objects in the theory – like simultaneity. Which also illustrates the way this kind of experimental grounded can be easily mistaken for pure theory, when the grounding is to abstract a key idea.
But – particularly relevant to the naive criticisms of climate science – experiment doesn’t have to be “real world” experiments. Numerical experiments on computers are fine, as long as they are grounded, say by being tested against observations.
Thanks TP, though this version is from www.liv.ac.uk/~pcknox/:
The layman’s conception of the scientist as a critic, a skeptic, a man intolerant or contemptuous of conventional beliefs, is obviously incomplete. The exposure and castigation of error does not propel science forward, though it may clear a number of obstacles from its path. To prove that pigs cannot fly is not to devise a machine that does so.
Unfortunately, a scientist’s account of his own intellectual procedures is often untrustworthy. Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare. If taunted he would probably mumble something about “Induction” and “Establishing the Laws of Nature”, but if anyone working in a laboratory professed to be trying to establish the Laws of Nature by induction, we should think he was overdue for leave. (From “Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought” in Pluto’s Republic, 1984, OUP)