Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Recursive and Self-Correcting Processes in Science

The gang over at Real Climate have posted an instructive piece (here) on how science and scientific publishing work, with special relevance to various climate science controversies and faux controversiesThe blog post infers a set of "lessons" from the controversy that recently erupted over preliminary research, published in the journal Science, claiming, contrary to the conventional scientific wisdom, that arsenic can provide a basis for life. The lessons include the following: 

  • "Major funding agencies willingly back studies challenging scientific consensus."
  • "Most everyone would be thrilled to overturn the consensus. Doing so successfully can be a career-making result. Journals such as Science and Nature are more than willing to publish results that overturn scientific consensus, even if the data are preliminary - and funding agencies are willing to promote these results."
  • "Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility - not their funding - is on the line.
The last bullet point is the "key lesson..., and it applies to all scientific disciplines: peer-review continues after publication. Challenges to consensus are seriously entertained - and are accepted when supported by rigorous data. Poorly substantiated studies may inspire further study, but will be scientifically criticized without concern for funding opportunities. Scientists are not 'afraid to lose their grant money.'"

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