If you don’t believe science self-corrects, then you probably shouldn’t believe that evolution by natural selection occurs either – it’s basically the same thing.
I have said it many times before, both under the guise of my satirical alter ego and later – more seriously – on this blog. I am getting very tired of repeating it so I wrote this final post about it that I will simply link to next time this inevitably comes up…
My latest outburst about this was triggered by this blog post by Keith Laws entitled “Science is ‘Other-Correcting‘”. I have no qualms with the actual content of this post. It gives an interesting account of the attempt to correct an error in the publication record. The people behind this effort are great researchers for whom I have the utmost respect. The story they tell is shocking and important. In particular, the email they received by accident from a journal editor is disturbing and serves as a reminder of all the things that are wrong with the way scientific research and publishing currently operates.
My issue is with the (in my view seemingly) ubiquitous doubts about the self-correcting nature of science. To quote from the first paragraph in that post:
“I have never been convinced by the ubiquitous phrase ‘Science is self-correcting’. Much evidence points to science being conservative and looking less self-correcting and more ego-protecting. It is also not clear why ‘self’ is the correct description – most change occurs because of the ‘other’ – Science is other correcting.”
In my view this and similar criticisms of self-correction completely miss the point. The suffix ‘self-‘ refers to science, not to scientists. In fact, the very same paragraph contains the key: “Science is a process.” Science is an iterative approach by which we gradually broaden our knowledge and understanding of the world. You can debate whether or not there is such a thing as the “scientific method” – perhaps it’s more of a collection of methods. However, in my view above all else science is a way of thinking.
Scientific thinking is being inquisitive, skeptical, and taking nothing for granted. Prestige, fame, success are irrelevant. Perfect theories are irrelevant. The smallest piece of contradictory evidence can refute your grand unifying theory. And science encompasses all that. It is an emergent concept. And this is what is self-correcting.
Scientists, on the other hand, are not self-correcting. Some are more so than others but none are perfect. Scientists are people and thus inherently fallible. They are subject to ego, pride, greed, and all of life’s pressures, such as the need to pay a mortgage, feed their children, and having a career. In the common vernacular “science” is often conflated with the scientific enterprise, the way scientists go about doing science. This involves all those human factors and more and, fair enough, it is anything but self-correcting. But to argue that this means science isn’t self-correcting is attacking a straw man because few people are seriously arguing that the scientific enterprise couldn’t be better.
We should always strive to improve the way we do science because due to our human failings it will never be perfect. However, in this context we also shouldn’t forget how much we have already improved it. In the times of Newton, in Europe (the hub of science then) science was largely done only by white men from a very limited socioeconomic background. Even decades later, most women or people of non-European origin didn’t even need to bother trying (although this uphill struggle makes the achievements of scientists like Marie Curie or Henrietta Swan Leavitt all the more impressive). And publishing your research findings was not subject to formal peer review but largely dependent on the ego of some society presidents and on whether they liked you. None of these problems have been wiped off the face of the Earth but I would hope most people agree that things are better than they were 100 years ago.
Like all human beings, scientists are flawed. Nevertheless I am actually optimistic about us as a group. I do believe that on the whole scientists are actually interested in learning the truth and widening their understanding of nature. Sure, there are black sheep and even the best of us will succumb to human failings. At some point or other our dogma and affinity to our pet hypotheses can blind us to the cold facts. But on average I’d like to think we do better than most of our fellow humans. (Then again, I’m probably biased…).
We will continue to make the scientific enterprise better. We will change the way we publish and evaluate scientific findings. We will improve the way we interpret evidence and we communicate scientific discoveries. The scientific enterprise will become more democratic, less dependent on publishers getting rich on our free labour. Already within the decade I have been a practicing scientist we have begun to tear down the wide-spread illusion that when a piece of research is published it must therefore be true. When I did my PhD, the only place we could critically discuss new publications was in a small journal club and the conclusions of these discussions were almost never shared with the world. Nowadays every new study is immediately discussed online by an international audience. We have taken leaps towards scientific findings, data, and materials being available to anyone, anywhere, provided they have internet access. I am very optimistic that this is only the beginning of much more fundamental changes.
Last year I participated in a workshop called “Is Science Broken?” that was solely organised by graduate students in my department. The growing number of replication attempts in the literature and all these post-publication discussions we are having are perfect examples of science correcting itself. It seems deeply ironic to me when posts like Keith Laws’, which describes an active effort to rectify errors, argue against the self-correcting nature of the scientific process.
Of course, self-correction is not guaranteed. It can easily be stifled. There is always a danger that we drift back into the 19th century or the dark ages. But the greater academic freedom (and generous funding) scientists are given, the more science will be allowed to correct itself.
Update (19 Jan 2016): I just read this nice post about the role of priors in Bayesian statistics. The author actually says Bayesian analysis is “self-correcting” and this epitomises my point here about science. I would say science is essentially Bayesian. We start with prior hypotheses and theories but by accumulating evidence we update our prior beliefs to posterior beliefs. It may take a long time but assuming we continue to collect data our assumptions will self-correct. It may take a reevaluation of what the evidence is (which in this analogy would be a change to the likelihood function). Thus the discussion about how we know how close to the truth we are is in my view missing the point. Self-correction describes the process.
Update (21 Jan 2016): I added a sentence from my comment in the discussion section to the top. It makes for a good summary of my post. The analogy may not be perfect – but even if not I’d say it’s close. If you disagree, please leave a comment below.