There is an entire industry churning out stories about how scientists are stupid.

Part of the problem is that we do it to ourselves. 

According to Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the process of 'normal science' is researchers working within a paradigm, nibbling away at the corners of a theory to refine it. This isn't how we're taught about science.

In school we tend to be taught about the big, revolutionary changes that shape and shake scientific thinking.  For example, the Copernican Revolution moved us to a conception of the earth as the center of the universe to the idea that the earth was revolving around the sun, which, we later found out, revolved around the center of the galaxy, which, we found out still later, is only one of a perhaps infinite number of galaxies in the universe.  This change from a geocentric to a heliocentric scientific paradigm had implications (complimenting the Renaissance and shifting balances between a secular and divine understanding of nature) for man's place in the universe as well.

The Darwinian conception of the evolution of species based on natural selection was a similarly dramatic paradigmatic shift.  The genes of those organisms whose progeny lived to reproduce most prolifically would become relatively more frequent in the population.  Geographic and behavioral isolation caused genetic drift and ultimately, breeding incompatibility.   Given enough time (or enough generations, if you look at rapidly evolving populations like bacteria or viri), speciation occurs. The typical attitude of people talking about the pre-Copernicans or about spontaneous generation of life prior to germ theory is sneering: how could 'they' (the people who believe things differently from us) have been so stupid? Of course the scientists who hold different beliefs weren't stupid.  They were the smartest people of their day.  They were simply wrong.

There have been many paradigmatic shifts.  There's the ultraviolet catastrophe), which precipitated quantum physics and our current understanding of chemistry.  There's the Freudian and then behaviorist paradigmatic shifts in psychology.  At a smaller scale there is Piagetian theory, attachment theory, and Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory, which argued that studying children in laboratory settings resulted in a science of child development where we 'studied the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time'. 

All of these major shifts are important because they shifted our paradigms: what scientists working in the area thought was worth studying, the type of observations they made and the equipment they used to gather information.  'Normal science' occurs between paradigmatic shifts.  It's where the rest of us scientists run around trying to disprove the hypotheses generated by the new theories, refine and improve them, and nudge our theories to provide better fit with observed data - i.e., the real world.

Why scientific papers are boring

The creative act of doing science is different than the creative act of making art, writing a book, designing a product, or academic work in the humanities. In the arts (my undergraduate degree was in the arts) the prototypic act of creativity is one that breaks new ground by throwing out old ideas and doing something NEW and EXCITING.  Something no one had ever thought of before.  When I was studying ceramics at the Program in Artisanry at Boston University, the cutting edge work was that which reconceived the plate or the idea of what glaze was by tearing the clay or using 'room temperature glazes' (read 'paint'). Yes, we all tried to throw beautiful teapots.  But what was seen as creative was the student who made a giant, ceramic walk-in toilet or who applied glazes to ceramic mufflers and scraped them off in a way reminiscent of rust and decay.

Creativity in the sciences is different. 

Because the process of normal science involves refining theories, we spend most of our time finding elements of past work that are inadequate, poorly articulated, or that provide poor fit with data.  Then we develop new measures, new experimental protocols, or apply new analytic techniques that allow us to see whether those identified problems were, in fact, problematic.  Did the new study provide information that the old one didn't?

A creative scientist is one who is skilled at analyzing other people's work and identifies ways to address those issues.  This is, I think, the major reason that non-scientists or students in the sciences find scientific papers boring. 

Ironic, isn't it?  Normal science sounds like a process rife with conflict, controversy, egos and scientific understanding of TRUTH on the line.  It is.  But it also means that the scientific process is inherently embedded in an understanding the current scientific literature.  Without knowledge of that literature so you feel teh controversy, the reaction of most people to most scientific papers is 'so what?'.  In psychology, that tends to translate as 'my grandmother could have told you that.'

Textbooks - and even more so, good scientific journalism or good science writers - provide us with the sweep of science. They link together a series of many scientific studies into a wonderful storyline explaining the significance and meaning of the thread of scientific discourse and our movement towards a better understanding of the truth.

Scientific papers really don't.  Or they do, but only if you know the field.  In the Literature Review section of a scientific paper, authors explain the context of the study and previous work in the field.  In the Discussion section, authors explain what they've found and how it's moved the field.  And those sections need to be short and are written for other people who already know enough about the field that the authors can outline or refer to an argument - they're not teaching from scratch.  It is exciting when you see the whole building, you read the paper, and you feel how this influences the next step in where the field has to go. 

It's great for us practitioners, reading papers in our own fields. 

But if you don't see the big picture, it's like reading one sentence chosen at random from the middle of a great novel.  Each individual paper is a tiny brick in a huge edifice. Reading a paper without knowing the field is a lot like looking at a single block in a lego Taj Mahal.

The reader's response will probably be 'so what'?

Scientists spend our time tearing each other down

All of which is to say that scientists get paid to tear each other down.  That's what we're rewarded to do. 

Which brings me to the blog Bad Science and the post You're Ooonly Cheating Yourself

Making someone who is supposedly smart look stupid makes us feel good about ourselves. In the next piece in this series, I'll talk about sniffer dogs, abused children, and Clever Hans

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved



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