Sunday, 9 September 2007

The Commandments of Science

I have been reading blogs more than is good for me (and I must admit that writing one is not something that I have time for, either), but every so often I come across something that reminds me that, however much time I may spend on them, I am not (entirely) wasting my time by reading blogs. This example was not a post on a blog: it was a comment. The comments section of a blog post is often more enlightening than the post itself, something not realised by people who only read what shows up on their RSS reader. This particular example was on a post on EvolutionBlog on an interview on Fox News discussing Ken Ham's new Creation Museum. The interview itself was somewhat predictable, and not very noteworthy; the post was mainly there to allow those of us unable or unwilling to watch Fox News see how each side presented itself (a service which is in itself much appreciated!). A commenter called Hoary Puccoon, however, wrote a truly remarkable piece. Since I suspect that this is a pseudonym, and since no Web site or blog was given, I fear that this will fall into undeserved obscurity. (I recognise that my own blog is not likely even more obscure than the comments section of a far better established blog, but at the very least this renders it more prominent to me, and any further dissemination that it can achieve is good.) This is the complete comment, with nothing changed except the formatting.

The whole is-there-a-god thing bores me. But why doesn't anyone emphasize how ethical science is-- and how unethical the creationists look to scientists?

The Six (and counting) Commandments of Science

  1. Thou shalt not lie. Fudging data is a mortal sin, enough to terminate one's career.
  2. Honor thy fathers. You must give credit to the previously-published work of other scientists.
  3. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Misrepresenting another scientist's work merits public exposure and condemnation. (The creationists never understand just how immoral their quote-mining seems to scientists.)
  4. Love thy neighbor. Ad hominem arguments are not acceptable in scientific discourse.
  5. By their works ye shall know them. If Linus Pauling is a legend and Watson and Crick are complete unknowns, whose model of DNA is accepted? W&C's-- because theirs is right and Pauling's was wrong.
  6. Let your yeas be yeas, and your nays, nays. Scientists must define their variables explicitly, and not fudge and say, 'oh, I really meant something else' if their hypothesis is disproven. (This is actually why theism versus atheism doesn't much matter in practicing science. God, whether he/she/it exists or not, is too fuzzy a variable to produce clear results.)

This could probably be worked up to ten commandments, but the point is, scientists, whether theists or atheists, do have strict rules of ethics-- which the creationists constantly violate. This point needs to be hammered into the public discourse. The creationists aren't just getting a few dry facts wrong-- they are undermining the entire ethical basis of science. Letting the fundies get away with claiming they represent morality is, in my opinion, morally wrong.

While obviously aimed towards the creation/evolution controversy rampant in the USA, and something that the creationists would do very well to read and understand, it is also absolutely right about how science works. The only change that I would make is one of ordering; some of the more important issues in discussing creationism are almost trivial (or taken for granted) in discussions of science. Each of these points deserves further elaboration, here in an order that makes more sense outside of the creation/evolution discussion.

  1. "Thou shalt not lie." This is absolutely binding in science. There is in science, as anywhere, room for cynicism, but never when one reports data. This is one of the reasons -- the main reason -- why most papers have separate "results" and "discussion" sections. The "discussion" section is interpretation, and there the scientist may be dead wrong (although s/he must support every significant assertion with data, either hir own or someone else's through citation), but the "results" section is pure fact. It is for this reason that scientific data are never published without an accounting of how the data were acquired. Should the data in fact be wrong, repeating the experiments or observations that produced those data will show that. Scientists demand transparency and accountability. Anything worthy of inclusion in the scientific canon must pass through editorial and peer review before publication, the latter process being undertaken by specialists, often the reporting scientists' competitors. Because of this, it is very hard to get away with a deliberate tampering of data (although it does -- very occasionally -- happen). Incorrect data resulting from a misreading of experimental results, or from the application of an incorrect analysis to such results, are generally dealt with graciously by both the discoverer and the scientists reporting those incorrect data. Should something -- anything -- in the "results" section prove to be a conscious fabrication, however, sooner or later, someone will find out, and their perpetrators' careers are over: nobody will take them seriously again. Scientists are unforgiving of frauds.

    It is worth noting here that faked-data scandals (including the creationists' favourite, "Piltdown Man") are invariably brought to light by scientists. It is for this reason that science is called "self-correcting".

  2. "By their works ye shall know them." There is a status system in science. This is based, among other things, on credentials, networking, position, seniority, and awards. Status in science is never inherited or bought or bestowed. Everyone in science must work for their status, producing and interpreting data and hypotheses that withstand the most exacting scrutiny. Status ultimately comes from one's ability to do that work. Since anybody -- even a high-school dropout -- can challenge any piece of work (assuming that they have novel interpretations or data, that these make sense, and that they are articulated intelligibly), science is in a sense the ultimate classless society. In other words, one must prove oneself, but anyone and everyone is given the opportunity to do so. If proving oneself means showing that a highly-regarded scientist is wrong, so be it. Science values truth* more than status.
  3. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." This actually follows from the first two points. One must be honest, and one must acknowledge one's sources honestly. Scientists take a dim view to having words put in their mouths. Intentionally misrepresenting others' work is not as bad as making up one's own, but it is still a grievous breach of ethics. For the most part, it does not happen in science, but when it does, it is quickly established as such, and is thereafter ignored.

    Unfortunately, this is not how mass media operates. Non-scientifically-trained writers and editors tend to take things out of context, or to reword things in manners that they may think are paraphases but actually have significantly different meanings scientifically. Corrections in the popular literature often go unregarded, so that a single misinterpretation may plague a scientist for the rest of their career. (The classic example of this is the tendency for creationists to use quotes by the prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould out of context to suggest that he did not believe that evolution was a real thing.) Given the complex and often-conditional nature of their work, many scientists simply refuse to discuss their work with the media. The irony of this is that scientists in general value communication -- which is why they tend to be eager to publish and to teach.

  4. "Let your yeas be yeas, and your nays, nays." Although it may not seem that way to the uninitiated, science demands clarity and simplicity. Much of scientific jargon is essential because it is unambiguous; new terms are always carefully defined before they are used. Of course, words do get redefined, or used in different ways by different scientists; but in such cases, the scientists are always careful to indicate the meanings that they employ.

    Scientists are expected to stand by, and to defend, what they present to the scientific community. They may, and often do, change their minds, but they lose respect if they say that they really meant something that they did not say. To use a metaphor often mentioned in the creation/evolution debate, the goalposts may not be moved. Once terms are agreed upon, they may not be changed, and if an explanation fails to account for any given phenomenon under those terms, it must be discarded. The only exception to this is when additional data can be produced to account for the phenomenon under question.

  5. "Honor thy fathers." Citing others' work goes beyond courtesy. If one did not acquire a given datum, one should acknowledge its source. This allows for the data supporting original ideas to be investigated, to determine whether or not they actually apply to the new idea. If one is arguing for or against an idea already articulated in the scientific literature, one should indicate whose idea it is, which allows for arguments both for and against older ideas to be interpreted in the context of the ideas' original construction. It also allows for those whose ideas have been misunderstood or misinterpreted to present their arguments explaining that.

    All of this pertains to an aspect of science not commonly appreciated amongst the lay: it is a social enterprise. Many scientists are intensely competitive, but all acknowledge that, ultimately, science is a collaborative process. Everybody has access to, and can use and interpret, everybody else's published data. Progress cannot be made otherwise.

  6. "Love thy neighbor." This is actually not that important in science itself; it is more a question of style than anything else. The expectation actually goes further than this, though. In the scientific literature, one never refers to others except through their publications. All that matters in science is science; the personal lives of individual scientists are irrelevant. Scientists have friends, but friendships are acknowledged at most in the (invariably brief) "acknowledgements" section of scientific papers. Everything else in a scientific publication is regarded as timeless, outside the scope of personal activities and allegiances, and anything that does not directly affect the work being published is omitted. Such matters impede papers' being relevant and understandable indefinitely, which is as close to immortal as any scientist can hope their work to be.

I am fairly certain that I will want to re-order these, probably soon after I hit the "post" button. (Arguments about this order will be gratefully accepted!) I make exceptions for the first and last points, which will always be first and last. But overall, it is a good list (and much tidier than mine in its original presentation). I will be happy to see it get more widespread dissemination.

* "Truth" is a somewhat dangerous word to use in descriptions of science for the layperson. In science, "truth" is always provisional, "proof" always conditional. This is not to say that scientists are necessarily postmodernists; indeed, I would argue that science is inherently opposed to postmodernism. Rather, scientists accept that the world around them is a real place, and that it operates in a consistent fashion. What scientists regard as "true" is their best understanding of how independently verifiable observations and/or experimental results fit with one another. New observations or experiments may require the re-evaluation, and sometimes indeed the replacement, of established understandings, but such understandings did not become established without having already proven themselves consistent many times over.

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