How Science Works: "The Science Network"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 at 11:47 AM Bookmark and Share
What makes science work as well as it does, and why should we trust scientific theories? 

These aren't the kinds of questions most scientists worry about, but they are reasonable questions for the non-science layperson to ask.  Any science educator should have answers for these questions. For one of those answers, hop on over to David Hone's blog and check out his post The Science Network.  It's a good description of why science works, and why it's relatively safe to trust established scientific theories.  It also describes (though, not explicitly) why breaking science news should be taken with a grain of salt: it's the process of checking and re-checking that refines scientific knowledge and weeds out bogus ideas. 

Here's my condensed (ok, ok ... cherry-picked) version if you'd like a taste before clicking that link up above:
A good scientist knows what she knows and knows what he does not know. [They have] a good idea of [their] strengths and weaknesses and [their] areas of expertise and ignorance.

... crucially, I also know people who are good at the things I’m not good at and are not good at the things I am good at... Together we have breadth and depth.

...[Importantly], it allows us to cross check and revise our collective work and have confidence in what we are doing across the whole of science, even, or perhaps particularly, when we have little or no understanding of that field individually...

In this sense then, scientists are not so much a group of individuals as a cohesive whole. There are, obviously, errors made (occasionally profound ones) but this colossal network of research ideas and analysis does produce a singular, and generally very reliable, whole. I may not understand astrophysics, but I recognise and trust the methods used to generate the data, the analyses and the people behind it. So can you.
While I'm at it, this perspective on how science works also highlights the near impossibility of conspiracy among scientists, especially given that nearly all researchers love to call out others on major mistakes.  It's perhaps that impossibility that makes cartoons like this so amusing?

2 comments:

Posted by: helen | 4/06/2010 1:08 PM

Hey, the questions you started with are some of the central questions of the philosophy of science!! So *that's* part of what philosophers do, too (to continue a conversation from weeks ago).

I've used this book: http://www.amazon.com/Theory-Reality-Introduction-Philosophy-Foundations/dp/0226300633/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270573590&sr=8-3 to teach philosophy of science before, and can vouch for it as a decent introduction, if you're interested.

Posted by: Paul | 4/06/2010 1:45 PM

Yup - indeed they are ;) I should start being more explicit about telling science nerds to learn a bit more about philosophy of science - perhaps this book would be a good suggestion for a place to start?

It does look like a cool book :) I'll pick it up sometime soon no doubt -- Chapter 14 Bayesianism and Modern Theories of Evidence has piqued the interest of my inner-mathematician ;)

Care to share a little more about which chapters of the book were used in the course? Was it read cover to cover or did you pick-and-choose chapters?

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