The self-correcting nature of science: a recent example

Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 6:14 PM Bookmark and Share
Science has a built in mechanism by which it can root out false or baseless assertions put forth by - well by anyone - but especially by members of the scientific community.


At it's core, science demands that ideas be challenged with empirical evidence and logical reasoning.  For practitioners (whether career scientists or otherwise) there is then an assumed responsibility to ensure those core demands are properly put into practice. This results in a kind of social norm among scientists that they are critical of one another, and that they hold themselves and their peers to the highest standards of scientific inquiry.  The result?  If it doesn't pass muster, it won't get past too many people before someone cries foul.

Over at the blog Why Evolution is True there's a nice, recent example where you can see this process in action.

5 comments:

Posted by: David Steen | 10/30/2009 10:27 AM

Regarding the paper (and comments) you link to, particularly damning, I would think, is the admission that seven reviews of the paper were conducted before the editor in question got the type of review she wanted! This is unequivocally not how the process should work (also amusing is the confession that the paper was rejected from SEVEN journals before being accepted to PNAS. Oh I would love to know what journals they were....There have got to be a few dozen people (literally) that reviewed this paper and are now biting their tongue.

Fortunately, this odd idea has now been refuted soundly in the literature, but it's unfortunate (as one of the blogs pointed out) that busy scientists had to take the time to do so (although I'm sure they don't mind since they now have a paper in PNAS).

Although papers like this don't seem to benefit our understanding of science; I think we can point to the process, as you did, to emphasize how science is pretty good at policing itself. It's surely counter to some of the ideas spewed forth from a certain community stating that our ideas about evolution are conceived from hoaxes and half-baked notions.

Good post.

Posted by: Paul | 10/30/2009 9:01 PM

Thanks for pointing that out Dave - there were indeed some pretty questionable actions taken by that editor. Hardly typical, and no doubt something that will (further) tarnish her reputation among the science crowd.

Posted by: Helen | 11/02/2009 12:09 PM

What I find especially cool about the way science is done is that it doesn't depend on the personal integrity of individual scientists. A scientist need not care at all about the intellectual advancement of humanity--purely selfish motivation will also lead him or her to work according to the rigorous norms of scientific practice and review.

In addition, the sciences are organized in such a way that while a particular scientist might be biased toward her own theory, and so perhaps inadvertently interpret data unfairly, there are always others who stand to make their careers by disproving her theory. You just can't get away with anything less than intellectual honesty for very long. I like to think that philosophy shares this feature, but some of our top journals still don't use blind review, so it's not clear to me how efficiently we manage to call 'bullshit'.

Posted by: Anonymous | 1/30/2011 10:00 PM

Science is a great subject and is one of my favorite subjects. Regarding evolution, I have a question- is it a theory, law or fact? To recall the definition of a true scientific theory, it has to support the scientific law (scientific law is a statement). If the theory is proven wrong by a number of individuals, even just one, it has to be put through the scientific method again. So if the theory is proven to be wrong, the scientific law would crumble. If evolution is true, then why has it been proved wrong in a number of different trials? That is what separates it from being a fact versus a theory. Remember- the scientific method is the backbone of science.

Posted by: Paul | 1/31/2011 10:08 AM

Care to clarify your definition of a few terms for me first?

These would be: Scientific theory, scientific law, scientific fact, and what you mean by "true" when you ask if "evolution is true."

Post a Comment