Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Science

In a Washington Post editorial, Davit Shaywitz describes some of the pitfalls of science, namely the hyper-competitive university environment and the false university-industry dichotomy. Money quote:
[S]ince academic success is determined almost exclusively by the number and prestige of research publications, the incentives to generate results are exceedingly powerful and can encourage investigators to see patterns that may not exist, to disregard contradictory observations that might be important, to overvalue data that might be preliminary or unreliable, and to embrace conclusions that deserve to be viewed with far greater skepticism.

Does all this mean the system is broken? Surprisingly, no. Ultimately, science tends to be self-correcting, and flawed ideas are eventually recognized and disregarded. There really does seem to be a marketplace of ideas, and many good ideas eventually gain traction and persist, while many attractive but incorrect hypotheses eventually fall under the weight of compelling evidence. The system is far from perfect -- especially with regard to the exploitation of the most junior (and most vulnerable) researchers, who support much of this ecosystem -- but like capitalism, it may represent the best available option.

Shaywirtz ends with these words of wisdom:
Researchers are unlikely to become less self-serving -- just as reporters are unlikely to become less opportunistic in their hunt for news. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to develop a more skeptical ear, to approach received wisdom cautiously and to pay more attention to data than to narrative.

Only by discovering our inner scientist can we fully delight in the hope of new research without being seduced by its charms.

1 comment:

Kent H said...

I'm not sure how credible you would find it, but I found the docu-movie by Ben Stein - EXPELLED! - quite interesting in this regard. There does seem to be a marketplace of ideas but some who won't play by the party-line game take decades to get their cases heard and the hard-hitters can get wrong for years.