Redefining Science

On his Labcoat Life blog, Khalil A. Cassimally considers the problems of defining science. He considers in turn theories backed by evidence, the search for truth, finding new and unexpected things, the scientific method and finally settles for the British Science Council’s definition of “the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence”.
However, there’s another side to science that none of this addresses: the existence of scientific institutions. Science can be seen as a kind of knowledge or a way of acquiring knowledge, but the word is also used in connection with various institutions: universities, funding organizations, journals, learned societies, professional bodies. These support the work of professional scientists in various ways and also set norms of scientist’s behaviour. It could be interesting to consider the extent to which the value anyone places on the work of professional scientists depends on their association with these institutions. For instance, are research results published in Nature seen differently than they would be if the same results were published simply on the researcher’s personal self-hosted website? If so, in what way and why?
If we accept that science lends itself to both types of understanding (a kind of knowledge; a kind of institution), then we should consider the relationship between them. The simplest kind of relationship would be one of correspondence such that knowledge originating from a scientific institution is necessarily deemed to be scientific and visa versa. If that is not the case, then either significant amounts of scientific knowledge originate from outside the scientific institutions, or significant amounts of knowledge originating from the scientific institutions are not scientific. In the first case, we would then have to ask why we would give special attention to the knowledge originating from scientific institutions and in the second, we would have to ask why we would regard knowledge originating from scientific institutions as being especially reliable.
Of course, it’s possible to admit that the correspondence between kinds of knowledge and kinds of institution is not perfect and that both of the situations referred to above occur to some extent. Defenders of the institutions may say that they perform some supportive or supplementary function; that we get better quality science or better value science by virtue of the institutions being there. To take my example above of journals vs. website publishing, it may be said that work published in Nature is more worthy of attention than work published on a personal website because research published in Nature has been peer-reviewed. However, the reviewers generally have to base their opinions entirely on what they see in the submitted manuscript. Their ability to decide the scientific strength of the work described is not really any more than the general readership would be able to decide for themselves if the manuscript was published anyway. We don’t need peer-reviewed journals to help us decide what is scientifically valid and what isn’t, because we are just as well able to decide this as the reviewers on the strength of what we can see – the manuscript. For a prestigious journal, the number of scientifically valid manuscripts received will generally exceed the number that can be published. The decision on what to publish is an editorial one based on what scientifically valid work is furthermore deemed to be important or worthy of our attention.
The effects of peer review are not limited to determining what gets published in journals. Peer review of one kind or another runs through most scientific institutions. It determines not only what gets published but what research proposals are deemed worthy of funding when the number of scientifically valid proposals exceeds the scope of available funds; who gets a job when several scientifically qualified candidates are available; and which scientists receive honours and which don’t. Clearly, whatever the value of scientific institutions in safeguarding proper standards of scientific knowledge, another important effect they have is to promulgate a sense of what is important within the body of scientific knowledge. This leads to questions of who makes those choices and on what basis?


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