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How to do science?

October 19, 2007 Leave a comment

This summer i did a course about, “how to do research in computer science?” offered by a great prof. It gave me a good overview about how scientific community in computer science behave. I learned many good things in the course but some things seems directly contradicts with the basics of science. One of them is:

“Cite others respectfully. Don’t reject others ideas in flat words. Otherwise you will make bad relations with co-researchers.”

My objection:

Science has three specific objectives for crediting somebody for discovering some knowledge.

a) To motivate people to do more and quality research such that they can become famous.

b) Nobody has tested all the scientific knowledge by oneself. We just assume many facts. In this way of dealing with knowledge, It is quite possible that some wrong mythical facts creep in as scientific knowledge. If we hold responsible somebody for each fact then this effect can be avoided. Whenever, someone wants to write a book on some subject then one can directly go to the experts of the subject and hold their neck for their claims. If the founder of the particular fact is already dead than well indexed papers can be used to authenticate. If in future some one shows that a paper has a wrong fact then this paper can be tagged for being wrong. In essence, credit system provide a bug prevention mechanism.

c) This credit system keeps the history and chronological order of discovery of knowledge. By studying evolution of science a researcher can learn how it has been done and what excited the earlier scientists. It can provide intuition of scientific methodology. What observations actually led to the solutions? What can mislead a researcher ?

Now back to the class, The proposed wisdom was that we should treat our fellow researchers nicely when they make wrong claims. If you have to disagree then articulate it in such a way such that you wouldn’t hurt her ego. This approach may serve reason(a) very well but reason(b) will be defeated. Reason(b) is much more important than reason(a). If mistakes are not pointed ruthlessly then correctness of science can be in danger. Researchers will not feel pressure to make correct and exact statements.

It seems asking point-blank questions is considered bad behavior. You can’t say on someone’s face, “You are wrong”. As Richard Dawkins noted as “Nineteenth century taunt” in his book “The God Delusion”:

“My whole world-view was condemned as ‘nineteenth century’. This is such a bad argument that I almost omitted it. But, regrettably I encounter it rather frequently……..
… What ,then, is coded meaning of ‘you are so nineteenth century’ in the context of religion? It is code for: ‘you are so crude and unsubtle, how could be you are so insensitive as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like “Do you believe in miracles?” or “Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?” Don’t you know that in the polite society we don’t ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century.’ But think about why it is impolite to ask such a direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.”

The sentence I want to pick is “it is embarrassing!”. What is the equivalent in academia? In academia, If someone proves that you are wrong then it is embarrassing movement for you. It is totally opposite to what scientific methodology asks you to behave. Let me quote Dawkins again,

“I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said–with passion–“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal–unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping.”

That is the highest ideal of science. If someone claims that you are wrong then, after understanding your mistake, you should accept it and enjoy the correct knowledge you have learned.

[Somewhere i had read that one shouldn’t write post longer than 1.5 page long otherwise no one will read. So,
To be continued….]

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