An Ode to the Scientific Method and the Scientific Community

An Ode to the Scientific Method and the Scientific Community

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An Ode to the Scientific Method and the Scientific Community

This is a great piece on how pseudo-science spreads and how segments of the US population have lost faith in the scientific community. It was a commencement speech given at Cal Tech the day before yesterday by Atul Gawande.

Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

Thanks to Allan Scherger for pointing me to this piece.


  1. Mark Traphagen, you will appreciate this one, I think.

  2. Oh Gideon Rosenblatt that is so beautifully stated!

  3. I wish I had known he was coming to town, I would have gone over there to hear him.

  4. Thought you would like this one, Mark Traphagen.

  5. WOW !!! Gideon Rosenblatt​

    Finally a Good “post” on This Day June 12 2016 …

    Appreciate your saving the Day !!!

    #Trust or #NoTrust

  6. These are topics well worth discussing in a constructive manner; especially in light of the rapid changes in technology. I find it fascinating that at this point in history (after 400+ years of modern scientific advances); modernism (with its base in science, logic, rationalism, technology, structure, etc) is largely giving way to postmodernism (and also in some parts of the world traditionalism is going strong). Post Modernism rejected the foundations of Modernism many years ago (50-75?) and is still gaining ground. You should be able to find writers/articles that talk about the ways in which modernism is in a major decline and/or dying. So as we look at the world of technology (largely grounded in modernism) heading headlong into the world of AI (in effect it’s modernism doubling down at increasing rates) it’ll make for some interesting times. I’m curious what others think on these topics.

  7. People are simply leaning less towards synthetic stuff. A person is not dismissing science if they want to eat an orange to get Vitamin C instead of taking a Vitamin C pill. Its just a different way to do the same thing.

    It might be an attack n the corporations who want to sell this stuff as a cure. In the end, people will choose whatever works best for them. Science will succeed either way.

  8. Atul Gawande is one of my heroes!

  9. Jay Geater I get what you’re saying, but contained in your comment are reasons why we actually need more science education for the general public.

    Terms like “synthetic” or “natural” are actually very squishy terms that have more meaning at the emotional or marketing level than they are actual descriptions of reality.

    A good example is when someone says, “I don’t want to eat anything with chemicals in it.” On the one hand, we kind of know what they mean, but it’s still a meaningless statement. Everything we eat is completely made up of chemicals.

    And there is no evidence that “natural” (whatever that means!) is always better than “synthetic.” We have many synthetic drugs, for example, which would never occur “naturally,” but are incredibly effective. And other synthetics exactly reproduce the molecular structure of their natural equivalent, so they are indistinguishable in any way that matters.

    Now as with your “where you get your vitamin C” example, many times this doesn’t matter so much at the end of the day. But the reason why I still crusade for better scientific literacy and against pseudoscientific claims is there are times when they can cause great harm (such as in claims for cancer cures that might cause people to not seek the medical attention they actually need.)

  10. Re: “Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility … But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.”

    Speaking in such vague terms is not at all useful.  It lends the false impression that controversies do not extend to timelines of half- or full-centuries in our modern era.  Yet, for those of us who have actually looked, such ongoing controversies can indeed be found throughout the sciences.  This is the subject of my G+ collection here …

    Controversies of Science

    This emphasis upon pseudoscience deflects attention away from the very serious mistakes which have been made in recent times by the scientific community.

    Take for example the way in which the rocket’s inventor, Robert Goddard, was treated for a full quarter century when he first suggested that we could send a rocket to the Moon.  He was unable to convince the public and scientific community on his own.  In fact, he was ridiculed — even by professors — for not “understanding” that a rocket would have nothing to push against in space!  It took Germans raining these same rockets, using Goddard’s own innovations, in fact, on London, before the critics of rockets would realize their mistake.  I just prepared a presentation on this subject here …

    What We Failed to Learn from the Moonshot

    I recommend that people who follow science look a bit deeper than these superficial narratives recommended by Google.  Why not listen to the science critics and historians?  Here are 8 commentaries on the dangers of specialization, some of which point to specialization’s unfortunate effect upon science’s ability to self-correct …


  11. Mark Traphagen I agree, people need to learn more about their food. Food manufacturers also need to be more transparent and build trust with the public.

    Synthetic and natural can be almost identical at a basic level, but when you look at a natural product, it is made of many complex compounds which seem to be in a sort of balance that may not be reproducible or profitable if reproducible. I guess it is more convenient and safe for people to blindly trust nature instead of human beings because of the human desire to have more than one needs. The consensus is that nature is the safer option. No wonder people are gravitating towards it for comfort.

  12. Good Morning Gideon Rosenblatt 

    Your Great Post has re-surfaced …

    Hopefully everyone will Read it this time …


    ping : Summit Medical Group 

    Good morning … TGIF Dagnabbit

  13. Coach G Moore It’s perhaps not as brilliant as everybody imagines, insofar as there is a glaring and what should be obvious oversight …

    Put very simply (as it is not complicated):

    Specialization undermines science’s widely hailed ability to self-correct.

    The two phenomena are in fact in tension with one another.

    The point is very well made by Bruce G Charlton’s critique in Not Even Trying, and true scientific thinkers would be wise to listen up, for the realization gifts us with a deep insight into the true inherent difficulty of doing good science …

    “However there is a more basic and insoluble problem about micro-specialization. This is that micro-specialization is about micro-validation — which can neither detect nor correct gross errors in its basic suppositions.

    In the world of micro-specialization that is a modern scientific career, each specialist’s attention is focused on technical minutiae and the application of conventional proxy measures and operational definitions. Most day-to-day research-related discussion (when it is not about fund-raising) is troubleshooting — getting techniques and machines to work, managing personnel and coordinating projects …

    Specific micro-specialist fields are built [around] specific methodologies — for no better ultimate reason than ‘everybody else’ does the same, and (lacking any real validity to their activities) there must be some kind of arbitrary ‘standard’ against which people are judged for career purposes (judging people by real scientific criteria of discovering truths is of course not done).

    (‘Everybody else’ here means the cartel of dominant Big Science researchers who control peer review — appointments, promotions, grants, publications etc. — in that micro-specialty.)

    Thus, micro-specialists are ultimately technicians and/or bureaucrats; thus they cannot even understand fatal objections and comprehensive refutations of their standard paradigms when these originate from adjacent areas of science. So long as their own specific technique has been conducted according to prevailing micro-specialist professional practice, they equate the outcome with ‘truth’ and assume its validity and intrinsic value.

    In a nutshell, micro-specialization allows a situation to develop where the whole of a vast area of science is bogus knowledge; and for this reality of total bogosity to be intrinsically and permanently invisible and incomprehensible to the participants in that science.

    If we then combine this situation with the prevalent professional research notion that only micro-specialists are competent to evaluate the domain of their micro-specialty — and add [in] the continual fragmentation of research into ever-smaller micro-specialties — then we have a recipe for permanent and intractable error.

    Vast and exponentially-growing scientific enterprises have consumed vast resources without yielding any substantive progress at the level of in-your-face common sense evaluations; and the phenomenon continues for time-spans of whole generations, and there is no end in sight (short of the collapse of science-as-a-whole).

    According to the analysis of classical science, science was supposed to be uniquely self-correcting — in practice, now, thanks in part to micro-specialization, it is not self-correcting at all — except at the trivial and misleadingly reassuring level of micro-defined technical glitches and slip ups.

    Either what we call science nowadays is not ‘real science’ or else real science has mutated into something which is a mechanism for the perpetuation of error.”

  14. Chris Reeve Thank You …

    Really appreciate you well thought out comments …


  15. Ever sense I got beat over the head with Scientific Facts have nothing to with truth (they are observations I now know, I consider this intellectual dishonesty as fact commonly refers to truth) I have become weary of words and how they are used. What is meant by pseudo science? Does it refer to manipulation of information for gain? Or is it used to discredit some ones pursuit? Kind of like the phrase conspiracy theorist aka deductive reasoning.

    Would newton and his gravity have fit in to the definition at one time? How about Tesla’s work?

    Science is about discovery. Scientific Method is how we form and report our experiments. What about thing we don’t have the ability to test like consciousness? We know it exists, but we can’t find it or quantify it. Does this mean that Consciousness is pseudo science?

    (a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method)

    Just wondering what others think? I enjoyed reading the previous comments and just thought I add tow more cents.

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