SoftestPawn’s Weblog

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Most Scientists do Science

Posted by softestpawn on May 10, 2010

Following the letter in Science magazine, from scientists defending scientists when they should really be defending science, there was this editorial from Brooks Hanson.

Brooks makes a few points far more politely than I do about some of the shortcomings in some disciplines, and this one I think is particularly pertinent:

“The scientific community must recognize that the recent attacks stem in part from its culture and scientists’ behavior”.

But it follows the same odd cultural attitude that permeats much of research, that conflates ‘scientists’ with science – that lumps up researchers with the body of knowledge that society’s technology and wealth and health relies on.

What is this scientific community? Is he talking about academia here? In which case part of the recent attacks do indeed stem from some attitudes and behaviours of some academics. And when other academics leap to defend such people, calling on vague mythical ‘scientific processes’ (or ‘peer review’, or ‘intellectual scrums’) that are supposed to make academics trustworthy, then yes the tarring brush gets bigger.

But Brooks takes this much further and tries to include everyone. In particular I take exception to this:

Scientists must meet other responsibilities. The ability to collect, model, and analyze huge data sets is one of the great recent advances in science and has made possible our understanding of global impacts. But developing the infrastructure and practices required for handling data, and a commitment to collect it systematically, have lagged. Scientists have struggled to address standardizing, storing, and sharing data, and privacy concerns.

Actually, some scientists (astronomers, medics, gene researchers, taxonomers, seismologists, simulation writers, geologists, say) have long developed the infrastructures and practices and standards required. In some cases by taking those methods from the body of knowledge (the ‘science’) that exists in the commercial world.

Perhaps Brooks is looking for a way of spreading the blame around, of not picking on particular teams. But it hampers the very public perception that he says he’d like to improve, as it lumps all scientists up under one theoretical culture which has been tainted by the actions of a few, but which doesn’t exist everywhere.

In fact, it may well only exist in a very few remaining places, and it’s not right to pass off poor working practices of some groups onto others without cause, especially if they only happen to share a similar job title.

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