Science in 4D

4d-portada
4d-portadaÍngrid Lafita

The range of things that we humans do to pass the time is extremely wide. Once our basic needs are covered, we devote the rest of our time to all sorts of things, some of which are noble and praiseworthy while others are trivial or altogether unworthy.

Some have to do with improving the human condition and reflecting on who we are and what we do. Others work on facilitating everyday life activities by changing the way we live and work. Some express our inner selves in more or less artistic ways. Their driving force ends up being one of our primary instincts, including the satisfaction of acquiring more knowledge than your neighbour or even, why not say it, dominating him if possible.

We classify some of these activities within the field of «science». Philosophers have argued for centuries about the definition of what is and what is not science, and if I had to bet on it, I would say that the debate will continue for as long as it is possible to make academic careers out of this topic.

On a practical level, we often find ourselves before an activity that is deemed scientific and we need to know whether or not it is so. Science is a good aid when making decisions and, therefore, a product or a recommendation that is allegedly backed by science has a lot of potential to convince us. Regardless of its effects on our health, nutrition or technology, a scientific label makes a difference.

Why would anyone want to pass for science something that is not? For many reasons, all of which are very human and understandable.

For starters, science has a reputation. Some applications of science do not, and in some environments technological progress is not very welcome, but it is generally good to have science on your side. Albeit with a utilitarian criterion, science provides comfort and helps to prolong life. Besides prestige, there is the money issue. The possibility of tagging a product or a service as scientifically proven results in the rise of prices, whether this is justified or not. And in many cases, there is an element of self-esteem. When a person devotes time to try to find out something about the world it is normal that this person wants to be considered a part of the science club. One assumes that science is precisely that: finding out stuff about the world.

Surely there are more, but these three should cover most cases. Everyone who has ever worked on science wants to be acknowledged as a scientist and we are ready to hold an argument with anyone who denies us this condition.

We are also willing to bar the way to anyone who claims to be a member of the club but is not showing enough credentials. Some ignore the issue, many mutter under breath and others loudly express opposition. To my shame, I belong to the third group. My part-time work monitoring the borders of science led me to design an acid test that enables us to easily identify any human activity as science or not. It has nothing to do with Popper’s or Kuhn’s works, but it can be easily explained to anyone in five minutes.

We need to detect the presence or absence of four words that begin with D: data, debate, discarding and dissemination. If one of them is missing, then it is not science.

 

«The common element in any scientific activity is that it is based on data»

4d-1Irene Yuste
Science’s acid test assesses the presence or absence of four words that begin with D: data, debate, discarding and dissemination. If one of them is missing, it is not science.
   

Data comes first

The common element in any scientific activity is that it is based on data. The word «data» lends itself to many interpretations, but it should be possible to reach a consensus on what is data and what is not.

One piece of data, according to the most basic definition, is a unit of information about the world. It is the result of an experiment or observation, depending on what part of the world we are studying. In many cases this is where lies slip in: only today I read that, during the influenza epidemic that swept Europe a century ago, 80 % of the people who took homeopathy treatments did not die. This presumed data is false and whoever wrote this knows it, but the unprepared (or gullible) reader could be misled. If the data is not reliable, the whole building collapses.

The need for data is a common element to many other human activities that are not scientific. Sports, for example, are based on data: how many goals this or the other team scores, or the time of an athlete. Are sports a science, then?

 

«Those aspiring to become scientists who are unwilling to join in debate, or cheat or request special treatment, prove indeed that what they are doing is not science»

4d-2Fogg Museum/ Harvard Art Museum
Debate is a compulsory rite in science. And it is not a friendly debate, at least not in public, although we try to keep appearances. Some controversies, such as Pasteur’s and Pouchet’s during the second half of the nineteenth century regarding spontaneous generation were followed with great interest.

   

Debate comes next

A rite of passage to enter the club of science is to join in debate. And it is not a friendly debate, at least not in public, although we try to keep up the appearances. It is a fierce debate; almost a deadly one. The survival of each of the participant’s theories is at stake. And after theories, publications, grants, patents, professorships, authorizations to sell specific drugs or any of these worldly things that affect scientists’ daily lives would collapse too.

Therefore, it is a serious debate. Those aspiring to become scientists who are unwilling to join in debate, or cheat or request special treatment, prove indeed that what they are doing is not science. Of course, there are cases of scientists who were ignored, silenced or worse in the past. Times were different. Today, when someone compares him or herself to Galileo, it is a clear sign that the time has come to put an end to the conversation.

Our own experience indicates that debating is a very common human activity. It is not exclusive to science and it tends to appear in any situation where there are two or more persons. To stick to the example of sports, debating is crucial, a part of the competition. And the same could be said about politics and art. Now it may all sound strange, but a century ago there were skirmishes between the attendants to a concert where works by Shoenberg and other members of the Vienna school were being performed, just like it happens today in some sport events.

Discarding, the keystone

Up until now many human activities meet the requirements: they are based on data and provide room for discussion. The third D is, in my opinion, what makes science unique. Most philosophers of science have concentrated their efforts around this point. The debate over the «demarcation criteria» tries to specify the boundaries between what science is and what it is not. Arguments can be very complicated and, from the point of view of science workers, even irrelevant. In a number of years at the laboratory I never heard anyone say «with this experiment we will falsify this theory» or «these results cannot be interpreted according to the current paradigm». Instead, I often heard «with these results we have to discard our hypothesis».

Discarding is the key. Science is an activity that discards. If I only had fourteen characters to write this article I would write: science discards. It is here where science differs from sports. For example, results, records and everything is there, yet we can discuss whether it deserved a penalty or not. In politics, things are much the same. Debates can be long and heated, but it rarely gets to a point where participants discard their initial stance. Perhaps data is irrefutable (a given investment was made or not), but the debate around the reasons that led to the investment or holding it back are so open that, even if we agree on the data shown, our political prejudice will justify it. Obviously people change their political ideas throughout life, but it is rarely the result of a specific debate. It is rather the accumulation of experiences that leads us to change our vote. And in the world of art the opposite phenomenon is even more visible: art is accumulative. Maybe there is no one nowadays who writes symphonies the way Beethoven did or chivalry novels as in medieval times, but these works are still there for us, centuries after the novelty faded. We discard works every day, but it is a filtering process that determines a canon of works in each generation that is passed on to the next generation. Canons are revised and so occasionally we «rediscover» some old authors, so things become more and more intricate.

Science is constantly discarding: every week papers that discard big or small ideas are published. The provisional truths of science discard other provisional truths so quickly that we must always be alert not to lose the thread.

 

«Many human activities are based on data and provide room for discussion. Discarding is the key. Science is an activity that discards»

4d-3CERN
Science is a social activity and, as such, it requires its practitioners to disseminate the knowledge they have obtained. In the photograph, a CERN press release.
   

Dissemination: an obligation

This last point is debatable, if you wish, but I stick to it and I am willing to discuss it. Science is a social activity and, as such, it requires its practitioners to disseminate the knowledge they have obtained.

One might even argue that science is not complete until someone writes about what they have discovered regarding how the world works, thus unveiling it to his/her fellow humans. All private, and often secret, enterprises that take place in laboratories around the world can be considered science only if it is made public at some point. Even military and industrial research, which is carried out in secrecy, often has to be published if only for the purposes of issuing a patent.

The example of Newton delaying the publication of his work on optics until the death of Hooke says a lot about his poor quality as a human being. As science, it is true that these writings were equally great in his drawer as they are in bookstores and libraries, but it is not until the process that spans from data collection to the dissemination of results is closed that we can say that any contribution to science has been made. We can find a similar example in the Chamberlen family, who kept the invention of forceps a secret for over a century. From the point of view of the philosophy of science, surely the latter point is not necessary. The sociology of science, however, is very clear: the power relations between scientists also include the prestige of publishing, the subsequent debate, citations, having in mind some publications and not others when considering one’s own research.

Where does it all lead to?

There is no need to waste even a minute on trying to make a distinction between science and politics or literature. Some social and human sciences study politics and literature with the tools that are available and, as far as they can, reach results that meet the four D criteria. As a human activity, however, a deputy or a poet would never try to convince voters or readers that they are doing science.

So who is interested in entering the club of science, profiting from its prestige, earning money and being able to explain to everyone that his/her activity is as scientific as any Nobel prize’s?

On the one hand, there are scientists, of course. After all, it all comes down to developing a career and earning a living in an environment that recognizes their own efforts as a contribution to science, albeit modest. On the other hand, there are pseudoscientists. Here is where the problem lies. Pseudoscience is science’s Lord Voldemort: a nemesis that competes with it to take its place.

The criteria used to identify the four Ds help us to very quickly define if an activity is scientific or pseudoscientific. Once we establish that an idea or a product is the result of the scientific method, we can discuss and discard them if necessary, although acknowledging that they belong in the same category of knowledge.

If, on the contrary, we see that a product is pseudoscientific, our options are very limited – either ignoring it or reporting it. I have been arguing for years that fighting against pseudoscience is the scientists’ duty no matter how you look at it. It does not matter if it is a conversation between friends or a conference at university – any scientist or person with a basic understanding of what science is must speak up. I know from experience that some discussions are futile, but it is worth to at least express your disagreement. If scientists do not set a well-defined boundary, it is difficult for the rest of society to distinguish between science, with its limitations, and the imitation that says it knows and can do everything and anything.

Jesús Purroy. Biologist and writer (Barcelona, Spain).
© Mètode 2015.

 

«Science is a social activity and, as such, it requires its practitioners to disseminate the knowledge they have obtained»

© Mètode 2015

Biòleg i escriptor (Barcelona)