2012-04-20—FIXING SCIENCE

“If it ain’t broken don’t fix it!” is good advice. However, if it is broken, then one should fix it—not discard it!  There are plenty of people who so dislike the way scientists (from Galileo through Darwin) have damaged our overblown egos that they are quite willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Of course science as practised isn’t perfect, and thus, like any complex system, has parts that need constant repairing or fine-tuning.  It is unfortunate, but inevitable, that creationists and conspiracy theorists interpret this self-correcting principle of science as a flaw, while actually it is the guiding principle of the scientific method and its greatest guarantee of arriving at truth.

REPLICATION
Scientific findings are always tentative, so replication of results is crucial to confirming any initial findings. The social sciences have a pretty low bar to jump over to claim a ‘significant’ finding.  The statistical confidence level of the conclusion need only be 95% (which effectively means the likelihood of it being wrong is 1 time out of 20).  This deems it is worthy of publication, and, only too often, uncritical acceptance as a scientific ‘fact’.  (Physicists set the bar a lot higher:  before confirmation of a finding in physics is deemed a real effect the statistical chance of it being wrong has to be 1 out of 3,488,555!)  So it isn’t really surprising that replication is a big problem in the ‘soft’ sciences.  But the real problem is that attempts at replication are so infrequently made, so interesting findings get entrenched that are often going to be wrong!

PUBLISH OR PERISH
Information wants to be free.  But when it comes to scientific information, not only is it costly to get access to it, but also it often costs scientists to give it out!  Of course they’ll pay up, for it pays back in increased professional status—and salary.

FIXING SCIENCE – SYSTEMS AND POLITICS
Scientist as a ‘profession’ is quite new.  The label ‘scientist’ was only coined in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. (Darwin disliked the term, preferring to call himself a naturalist.)  With the professionalization of doing science came a lot of problems about objectivity.  This is a well thought-out series of suggestions for patching some of the flaws in the system.

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