25 May 2011

The norms of the scientific community

There are two answers to the question “Why is science so successful?” The most popular, and probably mistaken, answer is that science has a method for guiding the discovery process. The other answer, associated with Michael Polanyi and Paul Feyerabend, is that the success of science is due to the scientific community having a particular kind of social organization (works according to certain norms).

Willmoore Kendall describes these norms in the following way:

[T]he discussion  process  works  in  those  situations   in which  men  who  are  products  of  the  tradition organize themselves  for a serious  venture  in the pursuit  of  truth ... Such   men  demonstrably    proceed   on  some such  principles   as  these: 

(a)   The   pursuit   of truth  is  indeed  forwarded  by  the  exchange  of opinions  and  ideas  among  many;  helpful  suggestions    do   indeed   emerge   sometimes    from surprising  quarters;  but  one  does  not  leap  from these  facts  to  the  conclusion  that  helpful  suggestions  may  come  from just  anybody.  

(b)  The man  or woman  who  wishes  to  exercise  the  right to   be  heard  has   a  logically   and   temporally prior  obligation  to  prepare himself  for  participation  in  the  exchange,  and  to  prepare  himself in   the   manner   defined   by   the   community.

Moreover   (c),  from  the  moment   he  begins  to participate    in  the   exchange,   he   must   make manifest,  by  his behavior,  his sense  of the  duty to  act  as  if  the  other  participants   had  something  to  teach  him-the duty,   in  a  word,  to see  to  it  that  the  exchange  goes  forward  in  an atmosphere  of courtesy  and mutual  self-respect.

Next   (d),   the   entrant   must   so  behave   as  to show  that   he  understands   that   scholarly   investigation   did  not  begin  with  his  appearance on the  scene,  that  there  is a strong  presumption that   prior  investigators   have  not  labored  entirely  in  vain,  and  that  the  community   is  the custodian  of-let    us not  sidestep  the  mot juste - an  orthodoxy, no  part  of  which  it  is  going  to  set lightly   to  one  side. 

(e)  That  orthodoxy   must be  understood  as  concerning  first and  foremost the   frame  of  reference  within   which  the   exchange  of  ideas  and  opinions  is  to  go  forward. That  frame  of  reference  is,  to  be  sure,  subject to  change,  but  this  is  a  matter  of  meeting  the arguments   that  led  originally  to  its  adoption, and   meeting   them   in   recognition    that    the ultimate  decision, as to  whether  or not  to  change it,  lies  with  the  community.   

(f)  The  entrant, insofar  as he wishes  to  challenge  the  orthodoxy, must  expect  barriers  to  be  placed  in  his  way, and  must  not  be  astonished   if  he  is  punished, at  least  in the  short  term,  by  what  are fashionably   called   "deprivations";   he  must,   indeed, recognize   that   the   barriers  and  the   deprivations  are a necessary  part  of the  organized  procedure  by  which  truth  is  pursued.  

(g)  Access to  the  channels  of  communication   that  represent  the  community's  central  ritual  (the learned journals,  that  is  to  say)  is  something   that  the entrant   wins  by  performing  the  obligation   to produce  a craftsmanlike  piece  of work. 

(h)  The ultimate  fate  of the  entrant  who  disagrees  with the  orthodoxy   but  cannot   persuade  the  community   to  accept   his  point   of  view   is,  quite simply,  isolation  within  or banishment  from the community.

[The "Open Society" and Its Fallacies, The American Political Science Review, 54(4), 1960, pp. 972-979]

Lee Smolin describes the norms in the following way:

Science has succeeded because scientists comprise a community that is defined and maintained by adherence to a shared ethic. It is adherence to an ethic, not adherence to any particular fact or theory, that I believe serves as the fundamental corrective within the scientific community.

There are two tenets of this ethic:

1) If an issue can be decided by people of good faith, applying rational argument to publicly available evidence, then it must be regarded as so decided.

2) If, on the other hand, rational argument from the publicly available evidence does not succeed in bringing people of good faith to agreement on an issue, society must allow and even encourage people to draw diverse conclusions.

I believe that science succeeds because scientists adhere, if  mperfectly, to these two principles. To see whether this is true, let us look at some of the things these principles require us to do.

* We agree to argue rationally, and in good faith, from shared evidence, to whatever degree of shared conclusions are  warranted.

* Each individual scientist is free to develop his or her own conclusions from the evidence. But each scientist is also required to put forward arguments for those conclusions for the consideration of the whole community. These arguments must be rational and based on evidence available to all members. The evidence, the means by which the evidence was obtained, and the logic of the arguments used to deduce conclusions from the evidence must be shared and open to examination by all members.

* The ability of scientists to deduce reliable conclusions from the shared evidence is based on the mastery of tools and  procedures developed over many years. They are taught because  experience has shown that they often lead to reliable results. Every scientist trained in such a craft is deeply aware of the  capacity for error and self-delusion.

* At the same time, each member of the scientific community recognizes that the eventual goal is to establish consensus. A consensus may emerge quickly, or it may take some time. The ultimate judges of scientific work are future members of the community, at a time sufficiently far in the future that they can better evaluate the evidence objectively. While a scientific program may temporarily succeed in gathering adherents, no program, claim, or point of view can succeed in the long run unless it produces sufficient evidence to persuade the skeptics.

* Membership in the community of science is open to any human being. Considerations of status, age, gender, or any other personal characteristic may not play a role in the consideration of a scientist's evidence and arguments, and may not limit a member's access to the means of dissemination of evidence,  argument, and information. Entry to the community is,  however, based on two criteria. The first is the mastery of at least one of the crafts of a scientific subfield to the point where you can independently produce work judged by other members to be of high quality. The second criterion is allegiance and  continued adherence to the shared ethic.

* While orthodoxies may become established temporarily in a given subfield, the community recognizes that contrary  opinions and research programs are necessary for the community's continued health.


I would call this kind of community, in which membership is  defined by adherence to a code of ethics and the practice of crafts developed to realize them, an ethical community. Science, I would propose, is the purest example we have of such a community.

But it is not sufficient to characterize science as an ethical  community, because some ethical communities exist to preserve old knowledge rather than to discover new truths. Religious  communities, in many cases, satisfy the criteria for being ethical  communities. Indeed, science in its modern form evolved from monasteries and theological schools — ethical communities whose aim was the preservation of religious dogma. So if our characterization of science is to have teeth, we must add some criteria that cleanly distinguish a physics department from a monastery.

To do this, I would like to introduce a second notion, which I call an imaginative community. This is a community whose ethic and organization incorporates a belief in the inevitability of progress and an openness to the future. The openness leaves room, imaginatively and institutionally, for novelty and surprise. Not only is there a belief that the future will be better, there is an understanding that we cannot forecast how that better future will be reached.

Neither a Marxist state nor a fundamentalist religious state is an imaginative community. They may look forward to a better future, but they believe they know exactly how that future will be reached. ... An imaginative community believes that the future will bring surprises, in the form of new discoveries and new crises to be  overcome. Rather than placing faith in their present knowledge, its members invest their hopes and expectations for the future in future generations, by passing along to them the ethical precepts and tools of thinking, individual and collective, that will enable them to  overcome and take advantage of circumstances that are beyond the  present powers of imagination. Good scientists expect that their students will exceed them. ...

The scientific community is thus both an ethical and an  imaginative community.

What should be abundantly clear from this description is that controversy is essential for the progress of science. My first  principle says that when we are forced to reach a consensus by the  evidence, we should do so. But my second principle says that until the evidence forces consensus, we should encourage a wide diversity of viewpoints. This is good for science — a point that Feyerabend made often, and I believe correctly. Science proceeds fastest when there are competing theories. The older, naive view is that theories are put forward one at a time and tested against the data. This fails to take into account the extent to which the theoretical ideas we have influence which experiments we do and how we interpret them. If only one theory is contemplated at a time, we are likely to get stuck in intellectual traps created by that theory. The only way out is if different theories compete to explain the same evidence.

Feyerabend argued that even in cases where there is a widely accepted theory that agrees with all the evidence, it is still necessary to invent competing theories in order for science to progress. This is because experiments that contradict the established view are most likely to be suggested by a competing theory and perhaps would not even have been conceived were there not a competing theory. So competing theories give rise to experimental anomalies as often as the reverse.

Therefore Feyerabend insisted that scientists should never agree, unless they are forced to. When scientists come to agreement too soon, before they are compelled to by the evidence, science is in danger. ...

Science moves forward when we are forced to agree with something unexpected. If we think we know the answer, we will try to make every result fit that preconceived idea. It is controversy that keeps science alive, keeps it moving. In an atmosphere filled with controversy over rival views, sociological forces are not enough to bring people into agreement. So on those rare occasions when we do come to consensus on something, it is because we have no choice. The evidence forces us to do so, even if we don't like it. That is why progress in science is real. ...

While the progress of science relies on the possibility of achieving consensus in the long term, the decisions an individual scientist makes as to what to do, and how to evaluate the evidence, are always based on incomplete information. Science progresses because it is built on an ethic recognizing that in the face of incomplete information we are all equal. No one can predict with certainty whether an approach will lead to definite progress or years of wasted work. All we can do is train students in the crafts that experience has shown to lead most often to reliable conclusions. After that, we must leave them free to follow their own hunches and we must make time to listen to them when they report back. As long as the community continually opens up opportunities for new ideas and points of view and adheres to the ethic that in the end we require consensus based on rational argument from evidence available to all, science will eventually succeed.

The task of forming the community of science will never be  finished. It will always be necessary to fight off the dominance of  orthodoxy, fashion, age, and status. There will always be temptations to take the easy way, to sign up with the team that seems to be winning rather than try to understand a problem afresh. At its finest, the scientific community takes advantage of our best  impulses and desires while protecting us from our worst. The  community works in part by harnessing the arrogance and ambition we each in some degree bring to the search. Richard Feynman may have said it best: Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.

[The Trouble with Physics, chapter 17, “What Is Science?”, pp. 301-307]