17 February 2014

Yesterday’s post about the big bang and cosmic origins struck a few nerves. Responses ranged from vulgar insults to dismissals of the post as “just a theory.” But more subtle were the criticisms that declared the post lacked humility. Scientific knowledge is never perfect, and to claim the validity of the big bang is to go too far. When communicating to the general public scientists should never say “we know”, only that “we might know.” Scientists should show more humility. Such criticism fails to recognize that the power of science is its humility. In fact, the scientific process is based on the assumption that individual scientists won’t easily show humility on their own, so it is imposed upon them. There are three basic tenets of scientific research: it must be based upon verifiable data, it must be done publicly, and it must be open to criticism.

Excerpt from da Vinci's notebooks. Leonardo da Vinci
Excerpt from da Vinci’s notebooks.

Most people view scientific evidence as repeatable experiments that can be done in the lab. For this reason the findings of evolution or cosmology are often countered with “you weren’t there.” But verifiable data is much broader than simply lab experiments. It is a process of gathering data that clearly documents when, where and how the data was gathered. If you gather observational data, the burden is on you to document its origin. If you use data gathered by others, you must clearly cite your sources.

Once you have your observational results or theoretical work, the next step is to present it publicly. This could be a conference, a preprint archive, a book, or submission to a research journal. A scientific discovery is meaningless if it isn’t disseminated. Publication provides a record of the work, so it can’t be tossed down the memory hole. Make a significant discovery, and the record is there. Make a foolish claim, and that’s there too. It’s the latter possibility that strikes fear into scientists everywhere, because publishing your work isn’t sufficient. When you make your research public your colleagues now have a chance to pull the work apart and see if it really says what you think it says. It gets subjected to peer review. peerreviewPeer review can be the most frustrating and most humiliating aspect of scientific research. That’s why it’s considered the gold standard of science. Having research published in a peer-reviewed journal means that the work has been examined by other experts in your field, and has been found clear and without obvious error. It doesn’t mean its perfect, but it does mean the work has been held to a high standard and survived. This is why when I write about new scientific work I focus on peer reviewed articles. When I write about work that hasn’t been peer reviewed, I clearly say so.

Scholarly books also go through a review process. Brian Koberlein
Scholarly books also go through a review process.

Of course even after conducting your research, organizing your results, checking it with friendly colleagues, presenting it publicly and submitting it to peer review, you still aren’t done. You’re never done, because at any time someone can critically review your work again. If you have a great theory and your predictions don’t support new findings, we look for something better. No matter how famous, or how many awards you may have, anyone can be toppled by new scientific discovery.

That’s the deal. Keep pushing back against ideas. Keep working to develop better theories. Always, always keep in mind that your theories might just be wrong.

What survives is an understanding of the universe that it robust. It is a confluence of evidence that supports a deep theoretical framework. It is knowledge humbly gathered, and put forward with humility. Through a process that recognizes human fallibility. It is humanity’s best understanding of what is real and true about the cosmos.

Peer review is central to science.
Peer review is central to science.

This is why I present ideas like the big bang with the claim that we know. We Know. We know because thousands of individuals have devoted their lives to understanding the universe. Devoted their lives to getting it right. Relying on a process that forces us to be humble, and forces us to defend our ideas over and over.

In my posts I always strive to present our best understanding of the universe in a way that is clear and meaningful. That’s why I try to limit moderation of the comments. It is a kind of peer review. I write about science to the best of my ability, and everyone is free to criticize it. I’ve made mistakes in my posts and been called on them. I’ve been praised and thanked for making things clear. I’ve also been called a liar. A fool. Prideful. Deceitful. Ignorant. Arrogant.

Fair enough. That’s the deal.