06 August 2009

The balance of science

A good conversation in the comments to “The Crystal Clarity Of Great Scientific Prose”, over at Unreal Nature. Several aspects of it intrigue me, but I'll confine myself to one: the relation of "Bad science" to "good science". Read the full set of comments at the link given above for the full background; I'll begin at the point where Julie H says: “A wider tolerance for Bad Science, in my opinion, yields a larger crop of good science.”

I find myself torn on this one.

On the one hand, I do agree that wacky ideas in science are the flip side of creative thinking. Blue sky science needs freewheeling thinkers who are not trammelled by accepted positions – and it needs them to be safe outside the pages of science fiction. Without them it cannot make the imaginative leaps open the way for sober discovery. I do believe that science is at present too straight laced, too reluctant to think radically and say “just imagine if...” Clinging to orthodoxy is bad science, too; so is a stodgy insistence that imagination has no place and only critical thinking will do.

On the other hand, the fruitcake brand of "bad science" is usually accompanied by a dearth of (or, often, complete absence of) critical thinking. Without critical thinking, intuitive leaps are worthless. Worse than that, too many intuitive leaps with no critical thinking to either back them up or weed them out will clog the air to suffocate both thinking and imagination alike.

So we need both. We need the willingness and freedom to make and listen to completely off the wall assertions without rejecting them, but also the critical habit of then subjecting them to scrutiny. We also (perhaps the hardest part) need to abandon our love of definite certainties in both directions. Bad science is typified by certainty that an off the wall idea is definitely true, established science too willing to state that it is definitely untrue, rather than being satisfied with levels of likelihood or unlikelihood.

What is the best balance between the two components? The value of soaring imagination on one hand and analytic evaluation on the other? Acceptance of one kind of "bad science" against toleration of the other? Analytically this is a mixture problem, in which progress is the dependent variable against inputs of wackiness and conservatism in different proportions.

It's not, unfortunately, a mixture problem which it is realistically susceptible to analysis. It's too big, we're too much in the middle of it, and the variables are too hard to define. Nevertheless, I'd love to see Mark J Anderson of Stat-Ease, who regularly produces whimsically humorous mixture problem examples in his company's newsletter Stat-Teaser, have a go at it.

It was Anderson who, just a month ago, quoted Isaac Asimov in a vein relevant to this issue: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka' but 'That's funny...'.” What we need is an atmosphere in which people can say “that's funny...” without fear of ridicule, even when they get things wildly wrong, but then retain the analytic frame of mind to critically examine what they have spotted. They are much rarer than they ought to be – on all sides.

1 comment:

Dr. C said...

Agreed. The problem is, as we all know, is that you can bureaucratize this process. The minute you do so, you destroy it. But, if you don't have bureaucracy, you can't do Science, particularly where a single instrument might cost a lifetime's salary. Sadly, gone are the days of the basement experimenter (<-leaving himself wide open).