Science is formalised humility
November 5, 2012
I think I figured out what the core, immutable quality of science is. It’s not formal publication, it’s not peer-review, it’s not “the scientific method” (whatever that means). It’s not replicability, it’s not properly citing sources, it’s not Popperian falsification. Underlying all those things is something more fundamental.
We all know that it’s good to be able to admit when you’ve been wrong about something. We all like to see that quality in others. We all like to think that we possess it ourselves — although, needless to say, in our case it never comes up. And it’s that last part that’s the rub. It goes so, so strongly against the grain for us to admit the possibility of error in our own work.
If science was just a matter of increasing the sum of human knowledge, it would suffice for us all to note our thoughts in blogs and have done. But because we’re not humble by nature — because we need to have humility formally imposed on us — we need the scaffolding of all those other things I mentioned:
- Formal publication is important so that there’s a permanent record of what we claimed to have found. We can’t weasel out of an earlier mistake by claiming never to have made it.
- Peer-review helps to prevent us from making mistakes in those formal publications. (That applies to informal pre-submission reviews as well as gatekeeper reviews.)
- Whatever the scientific method means in detail, it’s a way to keep hypothesis, experiment, result and conclusion separate, so other scientists can clearly see what has been done, what is fact and what is opinion.
- Replicability is providing enough information to enable others to determine on their own whether we’ve made mistakes.
- Properly citing sources allows others to check that our assumptions are well supported.
- Popperian falsification helps prevent us from having too much faith in our own ideas, by leaving them for the community to test.
All these standard parts of how science is done are about helping us to spot our own mistakes, giving opportunity for others to spot them, and providing a means for them to be corrected. (Of course, they have other benefits, too: for example, citing sources is important as a way of giving credit.)
We may not be humble people; but doing science forces us to act humbly.