The single most important virtue in science is honesty. Few other disciplines come close to having the simple, innate requirement of truthful reporting as scientific research. It is painful to admit that the strongest point of science may also be its greatest weakness. How can honest science compete in a world where the truth is what people believe?
I first need to justify my claim that science is one of the most honest professional disciplines. I see a scientific approach as the filter which sieves the reliable information out of our sensory experience, and uses that information to construct models of the world which explain our physical reality. It is unparalleled in its success as an approach for understanding the world we live in. As we gather more information, poor explanations and falsehoods are superseded or discarded and the accuracy of our knowledge improves. It’s not a smooth process in the short term, but if you jump through any 20 or 30 year period in the last few centuries, there will always be areas in which our scientific understanding has moved forward.
The ultimate aim of scientific research is, therefore, to improve our understanding of reality. If scientists aren’t honest about the observations they’re making, the models they create and the conclusions they draw, then the resulting knowledge is wrong. This defeats the entire purpose of scientific research, and when it occurs, it can create messy tangles, ruin careers and waste large amounts of time!
However, scientists are only human, so bad or sloppy science is inevitable. Most scientific research is not scrutinised at the data collection and processing level; the final, published results are where critical evaluation takes place. Transparency is increasing, but there are many areas where an unscrupulous scientist could make unnoticed changes. Therefore, bad science can be perpetuated in a dishonest or careless environment, and the self-correction, when it comes, will be more severe the longer the poor practice goes on.
Therefore, scientists are hammered with three golden rules – do not fabricate, dishonestly modify, or misrepresent (including by omission) results (plagiarism is up there too). It seems to be a simple standard, but most other trades don’t have so much to gain or lose based on the integrity of the practitioners. Scientists value intellectual honesty as a high virtue, and breach of the implicit trust in honesty throughout the scientific process is viewed as one of the worst crimes in the profession. Seeing that ideal in practice over the past few years, and experiencing firsthand the difficulties that arise when complete honesty isn’t observed in research, I find myself with a high level of trust in scientists and the process of science in general.
That’s reflected in public perception, too: Australians see science as a trustworthy profession. It’s not as high as the valiant public services, but ranking close to teachers, dentists and childcare providers is good company. Commercially, invoking ‘science’ as a testing method, or claiming a product is ‘scientifically proven’ is a gold (or minimum?) standard for building product reputation.
This may sound like a scientist talking up his discipline, but later in the week I’ll be expanding on this idea, because I think honesty has been one of the discipline’s greatest weaknesses in recent years. The scientific obsession with caveats, uncertainty and erring on the side of caution have allowed critics or opponents of science and its findings to twist, spin and misrepresent the nature of science, actual scientific findings, and the motivations and integrity of scientists. A process like IPCC reporting, which is inherently conservative, is pilloried by opponents as alarmist, and outspoken biologists supporting evolutionary theory are criticised for being too harsh about religion while fundamentalists accuse them of conspiracy.
How has the present situation come about, and where does that leave science as a profession? Is it even a problem? I don’t claim to have answers to such tough questions, but it won’t stop me tapping my thoughts out into the electronic world!