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“Scientific Facts”

Currently, there are many signs of attitudinal gulfs among those with different levels of education. This is a post concerning disagreements about the value of science, as an enterprise that contributes to the common good. There appear to be three features of science that contribute to the balkanization of support.

First, much of priority-setting for science funding, the evaluation of new proposed work, and the assessment of the value of products, depend on the judgments of those in the same field. This notion of “peer review” is a feature of most all research endeavors but is most prominent in science. A critique of this process often labels peer review as “cronyism.” Friends and associates are merely supporting one another. “You support my research, and I’ll support your research.” The obvious fear is that funded research fails to advance the common good in the most efficient way. Instead of a meritocracy, the evaluation process is an elite friends’ network of self-aggrandizement. The importance of the proposed research does not determine its likelihood of support but rather the connections of those proposing it to those reviewing it.

Protections against such cronyism include recusal rules for reviewers, which exclude collaborators, mentors/mentees, and colleagues from the same university. They include transparency of all grants awarded by funding agencies, with descriptions of the work proposed. Increasingly, they include linkage between grants awarded and the research products of the grant.

Second, the ever-changing knowledge set produced by scientific progress confuses the uninitiated. Science constantly creates new hypotheses. Some are supported, and the findings add to currently accepted knowledge. However, few scientists expect that all parts of the currently accepted knowledge will be invariant in the future. Science progresses. What appeared to be true in one era is refined and changed with discoveries in a later era. For those who seek invariant truth, such change can be misunderstood as poor performance, that nothing is believable out of science because its “truth” is dynamic.

Third is the fact that science, like all academic fields, is in constant deliberation. There are always controversies. Different theories explaining target phenomena appear to be attractive to different subgroups. Different approaches to questions are supported by subgroups. Debates are common. Most scientists would say debates are necessary. Opposing viewpoints, orally presented in conferences, printed in journals and books, are the necessary fuel to progress. The debates help identify future research directions and clarify puzzles, all to the benefit of seeking a better approximation to the truth.

From the outside, not knowing these last two features of research, it’s easy to attack research by noting that what the fields are claiming are “findings” are constantly changing. You can’t believe anything they say because in a few months they’ll say something different. You just can’t count on them, so ignore them. Further, when popular media describe the internal debate over theories, methods, and findings, they often do so through the lens of a two-party debate. “They don’t agree within the group. The findings are ‘controversial.’” “There is a lack of consensus even among themselves. There are many who don’t accept the conclusions.”

These three features of science lead one to hypothesize that part of the large educational differences in support of science is due to a failure of science and researchers to describe their work and its culture. How can scientists communicate that current findings will be subject to the similar refinements and changes as prior findings? How can scientists help the media understand that controversies are the engine for advancement in science? Widening the support for science requires that we tackle these questions with the same vigor we use in our research.

6 thoughts on ““Scientific Facts”

  1. Interesting analysis of scientific hypotheses, research , and” facts”. This reminds me of the most meaningful course I had in medical schoool. The very wise professor of Lab Diagnosis Dr Charlie Rath. Used to give cases with an open book to discuss. He said the main reasons were first a lot of the “ facts “ we were taught would be found to be false in twenty years thus facts were good but more important was to learn to think and continually reevaluate studies and data. Great advice then and now . We were taught nerves can’t regenerate. Well. Guess that DOES Happen now for Sure! Good doctors and goood scientists must be life long learners. Actually that should be true for all good citizens!

  2. One way to communicate the ever-changing nature of science is through the history of science, taught and written about in a non-positivistic fashion. With regard to contemporary science, we need more people who can comminicate science, technology, and medicine in accessible ways without dumbing down the science. The New York Times, the Washington Post, AAAS’s Science Magazine, AIP’s Physics Today, and other newspapers and journals (professional and popular) have great science writers doing just that. The English Department has a journalism minor that could pair with a major in any of the sciences, or even with the STIA program in SFS, to train students who can work in the field of “communicating science.” A thought for the future.

  3. The value of science, as an enterprise that contributes to the common good, also could be evaluated in terms of positive outcomes resulting from having discovered specific scientific facts. That approach fits with part of what Kathryn suggested about communicating science history. The effort of discovering Fact A, Fact B and Fact C led to Positive Outcome 1 and Positive Outcome 2 … discovering Fact X, Fact Y and Fact Z led to Positive Outcome N. Of course, one would need to define what “positive” might mean to various groups (there can be winners and losers).

  4. Indeed, scientists could presumably do better in communicating science, but society (including Universities) could also do a bit better in promoting science education and respect for science.

  5. Georgetown needs to step up its game in the sciences to meet growing student demand, employer preferences and the needs of the 21st century economy, as well as to keep up with our competition.

    At the same time, to generalize Kathryn Olesko’s idea above, we should enable and encourage science majors also to pursue humanities minors. That combination, it seems to me, powerfully equips students for both career achievement and public service—-and, given the relative strength of our humanities departments, is an educational approach at which we particularly can excel.

    Bill Kuncik SCS ‘17

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