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.

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