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In the Company of Scientists

Transforming the world, one experiment at a time.

Key points

  • The so-called iron rule of science is a singular focus on gathering empirical evidence.
  • Scientific knowledge is part of the public domain, with transparency and data sharing as essentials.
  • What distinguishes science from other disciplines is not so much an emphasis on generating new theories but rigorously eliminating old ones.
 Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.
"The Research," by Joaquin Sorolla, 1897. Museo Sorolla, Madrid.
Source: Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.

If Descartes were a university, it would be “a rambunctious and vibrant place, spilling into the hallways….” Faculty members would read each other’s work and share ideas.

If Isaac Newton were a university, “you would not hear a sound.” Faculty members, isolated in their labs or offices, would concentrate on their research, and the common room “would be thick with dust,” writes philosophy of science professor Michael Strevens in his book The Knowledge Machine (2020).

We might assume that an open-minded and humanistic approach would be the greater institution. Still, it is the Newtonian environment of narrow specialization and “lean scientific spirit” that is the “better route to knowledge,” claimed Strevens.

Strevens described what he calls the iron rule of science, namely a singular focus on empirical evidence. This rule provides an “etiquette for argument” and a set of ground rules that compel scientists to resolve differences among colleagues by observation and experimentation, rather than by “shouting or fighting or philosophizing or moralizing…” he said.

What distinguishes scientific thought from philosophy is not an emphasis on generating new theories so much as one that focuses on rigorously refuting old theories. This was Karl Popper’s doctrine of falsification in which weaknesses and errors are systematically criticized and eventually corrected, said Popper (1963).

Photo copyright GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.
"Scientists in Chemistry Lab," American School, 20th Century, 1925. Private Collection.
Source: Photo copyright GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.

A scientific worldview involves clear thinking, combined with respect for evidence that is “inconvenient,” “unwanted,” and that “challenges our preconceptions” (Sokal, 2008). Above all, there is a commitment to continued scrutiny and a search for truth.

Back in the early 1940s, American sociologist Robert Merton emphasized that science involved “social collaboration.” Science creates a “powerful web of interlocking evidence” (Sokal, 2008). Rarely does everything rest on one “crucial experiment” (Sokal, 2008).

Merton recognized that scientific achievement was cumulative, as evidenced by Newton’s classic remark, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The only intellectual property rights that scientists should expect are recognition and esteem. Further, scientific knowledge is part of the public domain—“common property,” as it were, with secrecy the antithesis of that norm (Merton, 1942).

Merton was far ahead of his time in that efforts for transparency, rigor, and replication have been a major focus for researchers in recent years, particularly among Allison and his colleagues (Brown et al., 2014; Brown et al., 2021; Richardson et al., 2017; Valdez et al., 2020; Vorland et al., 2021; Vorland et al., 2020). Scientists, therefore, have an ethical obligation to disclose all information concerning their research, particularly since only they have access to all the raw data and unpublished calculations. They have, as well, a further obligation not to misrepresent the strength of their evidence (Sokal, 2008).

Any “trust-based system, as science is,” though, is potentially open to exploitation and not necessarily self-correcting (Stroebe et al., 2012). For science to be self-correcting, scientists must be accountable to their peers, with an “organized skepticism” and willingness to suspend judgment (Merton, 1942).

The peer-review system, typically a watchdog for evaluating scientific research pre-publication (Stroebe et al., 2012), failed miserably in a hoax perpetuated by Sokal, a professor of physics. Troubled by the declining standards in the humanities journals, Sokal tried his own “modest experiment” of submitting a paper “liberally salted with nonsense” and “fundamental silliness” to the prestigious journal Social Text (1996). His article was “a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, nonsequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever” (Sokal, 1996).

Among his preposterous claims, Sokal proclaimed that science had obliterated the concept of objective reality, quantum field studies had confirmed Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations, and quantum gravity has “profound political implications.” Surprisingly, and to Sokal’s disappointment, the article, meant as a parody, was accepted for publication.

 Luisa Ricciarini/Bridgeman Images. Copyright 2021, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Used with permission of ARS and Bridgeman.
"Scientists Around a Table," by French artist Raoul Dufy, 1937. Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France.
Source: Photo credit: Luisa Ricciarini/Bridgeman Images. Copyright 2021, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Used with permission of ARS and Bridgeman.

No physicist had been consulted during the editorial process. But “even nonscientists might well wonder what quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis,” said Sokal. He concluded that the article’s publication “exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory” such that “incomprehensibility becomes a virtue” and is “lauded as the height of scholarly achievement.”

Perhaps Sokal's hoax remained undetected because of the generally high regard for scientists: there was the assumption that even something incomprehensible must be profound. “When I find myself in the company of scientists,” wrote W.H. Auden, “I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing-room full of dukes (1989).

 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC/Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.
"Man of Science," by unknown American artist, 1839.
Source: Photo credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC/Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.

The word “scientist” is of recent origin, unlike the word “science,” which came to signify knowledge by the Middle Ages, or the word “scientific” that came into use by the late 18th century to mean knowledge acquired by observation or experiment.

William Whewell, a 19th-century English philosopher, theologian, and polymath, is credited with coining the term scientist. “We need a name very much to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should call him a scientist (Whewell, 1840). The new designation “immeasurably strengthened” the position of science (Ross, 1962). This high regard, though, has not always been universal.

For example, the present assault on science from some today, as evidenced, for example, by the politicization of vaccine mandates, is not unique. There had developed “local contagions of anti-intellectualism threatening to become epidemic” back in the early 1940s (Merton, 1942). Whereas previously scientists could be independent of society, this “frontal assault on the autonomy of science” demanded a change from “sanguine isolationism” to engaging with society, said Merton.

 Collection Gregoir/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.
"Municipal Chemistry Laboratory," by French artist Ferdinand Gueldry, 1887. Illustration from a French newspaper.
Source: Photo credit: Collection Gregoir/Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.

The code of public behavior for scientists, though, is stringent. It excludes philosophy, religion, and beauty. “The iron rule imposes narrowness on scientific argument and dialogue but puts no constraints on a scientist’s private thoughts,” wrote Strevens.

Romantic poet John Keats’ concept of negative capability comes to mind. Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis at age 25, was trained and licensed as a physician though he much preferred poetry and never practiced medicine.

In a letter to his brothers, Keats suggested that a “Man of Achievement” is one “who is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats, 1817).

Keats singled out Shakespeare as his quintessential “Man of Achievement,” though his one passing reference to negative capability has spawned considerable multi-disciplinary scholarship throughout the years. The concept has been applied, for example, to leadership that supports “reflective inaction” (Simpson et al., 2002); to the psychotherapeutic process that emphasizes an acceptance of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt (Eisen, 1979); and to clinical practice, where it reflects an intellectual and emotional openness (Coulehan, 2017).

 Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.
"The Student of Chemistry and Pharmacy," by 19th-century Austrian artist Karl Joseph Litschaur. Josef Mensing Gallery, Hamm-Rhynern, Germany.
Source: Bridgeman Images. Used with permission.

This ability of scientists in their private moments to “function imaginatively in the face of incomplete knowledge” (Coulehan, 2017) may be what sustains them during those solitary periods when they require the intense concentration necessary for that “lean scientific spirit.”

Special thanks to David B. Allison, PhD., Dean of the School of Public Health at Indiana University, Bloomington, for calling my attention to Strevens' book and for his own commitment to truth in pursuing science.

References

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Brown AW et al. Toward more rigorous and informative nutritional epidemiology: the rational space between dismissal and defense of the status quo. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 22 October 2021 (published online.)

Brown AW; Ioannidis JPA et al. Unscientific beliefs about scientific topics in nutrition. Advances in Nutrition 5: 563-565, 2014.

Coulehan J. Negative capability and the art of medicine. JAMA 318 (24): 2429-2430, 2017.

Eisen P. Negative capability as a factor of problem-solving within the psychotherapeutic process. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 13: 27-34, 1979.

Keats J. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, December 21, 1817. Quoted in Ward, A. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. New York: The Viking Press, p. 161, 1963.

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Oxford English Dictionary, "Scientist." OED.com

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Richardson, MB et al. The development of scientific evidence for health policies for obesity: why and how. International Journal of Obesity (London). 41(6): 840-848, 2017.

Ross, S. Scientist: the story of a word. Annals of Science 18(2): 65-85, 1962.

Simpson P. et al. Leadership and negative capability. Human Relations 55(10): 1209-1226.

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https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4… (retrieved 11/1/21).

Sokal, AD. Transgressing the boundaries: an afterword. Dissent 43(4): 93-99, Fall, 1996.

https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/afterword_v1a/afterword_v1a_singl… (retrieved 11/1/21).

Sokal A. What is science and why should we care? Third Annual Sense About Science Lecture, February 27, 2008. https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/sense_about_science_PUBL.pdf (retrieved 11/1/21)

Sokal, AD. Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996). https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singl… (retrieved 11/1/21)

Strevens M. The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2020.

Stroebe W. et al Scientific misconduct and the myth of self-correction in science. Perspectives on Psychological Science 7(6): 670-688, 2012.

Valdez D. et al. Improving open and rigorous science: ten key future research opportunities related to rigor, reproducibility, and transparency in scientific research. F1000Research 9: 1235, 2020.

Vorland CJ, Brown, AW et al. Errors in the implementation, analysis, and reporting of randomization within obesity and nutritional research: a guide to their avoidance. International Journal of Obesity (London), 2021 (online ahead of print.)

Vorland CJ; Brown AW. Toward fulfilling the aspirational goal of science as self-correcting: a call for editorial courage and diligence for error correction. European Journal of Clinical Investigation. 50(2): e13190, 2020.

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