The Scientific Method and Development of Peer Review

This process of “Why?” leading to “Because” and back to “Why?” ad infinitum describes the rudiments of the Scientific Method.  It is a never-ending process, and there can be a long time between a “Because” and the next “Why?” Once the time becomes sufficiently long, the “Because” becomes the “Generally Accepted Because”.

When the “Generally Accepted Because” somehow no longer satisfies, then another “Why?” is asked.  The asker might be directed to previous precedent, or the “Generally Accepted Because” until the asker develops enough evidence to either expand or replace the “Generally Accepted Because”.  When enough people have seen enough evidence to expand or replace the “Generally Accepted Because”, a new “Generally Accepted Because” becomes generally accepted[1].

The evolution of how our understanding of the way the universe works was begun by talented and curious, but untrained[2] individuals who were keen observers with few accurate instruments.  These people began the study of Natural Philosophy[3], including Logic, Geometry, and Mathematics.  Over time academies for training Scientists developed, and a process for reviewing the work of other Scientists arose.

A Scientist would ask “Why?” and propose a theory as to “Why?” was valid or not.  He would then do some sort of test or experiment and carefully collect data.  The Scientist then analyzed the data and reported on whether his “Theory of Why?” was supported or not based on the data collected[4].  Other Scientists would review the report and evaluate the data collection and analysis methodology and the Scientist’s conclusions, primarily to keep him honest.  To further enhance the perception of honesty, Scientists would share their data, so that other Scientists could reproduce the results.

Reproduction of results is critically important.  First, if something is believed to be a “Universal Truth”, then it should apply universally – that is to say that the results should be independent of where and when an experiment was conducted.  Second, reproduction of results enforces transparency – the desire to show to the world that nothing underhanded is going on[5].

So when a Scientist presented his work and shared his data, other Scientists[6] would question his methods and data, and decide whether the work was of sufficient quality to either expand or replace the “Generally Accepted Because”.

As knowledge increased and fields of study became more specialized, it became apparent that when a Scientist is the expert in a specific field of study, who is able to judge the Scientist’s work?  The review process was first done by people knowledgeable in the ways of Science.  The ways of Science in their most basic form rely upon the use of logic and do not require specialized knowledge[7].

But as a specific field of study attracted more Scientists to specialize in it, the community started to assert that the only people competent to judge a specific field of study were only the people working in that field of study. This view tends to be inwardly focused and excludes other views that might challenge the “Generally Accepted Because.”

[1] Generally speaking.

[2] In any new endeavor, the trailblazers are ones with little to no formal training in the “Scientific Method”.  However, they did and do apply logic and understood the need to neutrally test hypothesis and neutrally evaluate the answers.  Formal training began much later.

[3] “Natural Philosophy” was what Science was before it was called Science.  Because it was the philosophy of the natural world.

[4] Sometimes, the asker simply asked “Why?” and left the work of finding the “Because” to others.  This was sometimes regarded as genius, not laziness.

[5] Because once a Scientist says “trust me” without clearly showing his methods and results, he is asking you to take his findings on faith.  That is crossing over between Science and Religion.

[6] Other learned colleagues with an interest in the Natural Sciences.  Which is how we got the term “Peer Review”.

[7] This is why a Scientist in one field may offer a judgment in an unrelated field.  Logic should not be dependent upon the specific field of study, unless the field is logic.

What is Science?

Ever since homo sapiens began to wonder about the world in which he[1] lived, he strove to put order to the chaos that was his daily life[2].  This probably began as noticing certain patterns and may have been somewhat instinctual, but the key difference between animals and him is that he not only tried to take advantages on these patterns, but wanted to understand “Why?”

The first step is to answer “Why?” is to try to put reasoning behind the patterns.  “Light” and “dark” were most likely the first things noticed, but the question of “Why?” was the next great leap.  With limited knowledge and experience, reasoning was not a strong suit – the reason became “Because.”  “Because” naturally leads to another “Why?” question, and as anyone who has dealt with a 2 year old knows, this quickly devolves into an infinite regression.  Until the “Authority”[3] ends the questioning with “Because I say so.”  The “Authority” ends the questioning simply because he does not have an adequate answer to the reasonable[4] “Why?” and his edict becomes “Established Truth” or “Generally Accepted Because”[5].

Science, in my estimation, is the search for the “Generally Accepted Because” of how the world and observable universe works.  Science is not an appeal to “Authority”[6] unless the “Authority” is the collected data and reasoning used to draw a conclusion.  The “Authority” is, or should be, a neutral observer and should welcome questioning of the “Generally Accepted Because”.  If the evidence supports the “Generally Accepted Because”, the “Generally Accepted Because” becomes stronger; if the evidence erodes the “Generally Accepted Because”, it leads to either a modification or replacement of the “Generally Accepted Because”.

Next: The Scientific Method

[1] Throughout this discussion, I will use the term “he”.  Not to be sexist, but to use the widely accepted literary convention that when the gender is not known, to revert to the masculine pronoun.  I find that using “he/she” or “(s)he” is stilted and does not generally read well.  And I’m old.

[2] I may be old, but I’m not that old.

[3] Or “adult” in this example.

[4] At least in the eyes of the questioner.

[5] There is a distinction between an “Established Truth” and a “Generally Accepted Because”.  An “Established Truth” is immutable and cannot change; a “Generally Accepted Truth” can evolve over time.

[6] An appeal to “Authority” is when others rely upon and direct any additional inquiries to the “Authority” and he ends the discussion with “Because I say so”.  That is not Science; that is faith.

Mea Culpa

My apologies for being somewhat slack in keeping the blog updated. As you know, I spend a great deal of time out of the country on business in a place where internet access is spotty. Then life happened. I can say that I am indeed glad 2016 is over and done.

My plans for the 2017 is to do more explanation of science theory and policy. By “science theory”, I mean to discuss what the term “science” means in a broad sense although I may have to bring in some scientific theories in as examples.

I have undertaken this task because I am absolutely disgusted that science – as an ideal – has been hijacked into the realm of politics for activists of both parties to make and score narrow points. In doing this, they have created an environment that is internally inconsistent. To wit, if argument X works for one side, the other side uses the exact opposite of X to bolster their side. That is like saying “water is wet because of X”, and the other side saying water is not wet because of X” – it is illogical on its face.

That is not to say that paradoxes do not exist – light is both a particle and a wave – but the entire field of scientific inquiry cannot be a paradox. We (as scientists, citizens, or both) need to begin to consider what is science and what is “science-like”.

We need to admit that there are biases, and I will try to keep politics out of the discussion for two reasons, although I recognize it may be difficult to do so. First, if we accept that science is the search for the true nature of our universe, then science on its face is apolitical. Second, politics have degraded the nature of the national discussion to the point where everyone is screaming past each other, rather than discussing substantive topics.

I welcome comments, but please keep it civil. And remember, I am the arbiter of civility.