The science network

A good scientist knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. He has a good idea of his strengths and weaknesses and his areas of expertise and ignorance.

I know I know pterosaurs and theropods quite well, sauropods less well, ornithischians much less well and so on. I have a good handle on systematics and taxonomy and behaviour, but not on taphonomy or morphometrics. However, crucially, I also know people who are good at the things I’m not good at and are not good at the things I am good at. There are also people who are real specialists and can use a method or know a group better than almost anyone else alive, or generalists (which I’m certainly closer to) who can do a fair range of things quite well and link the other stuff together. Together we have breadth and depth.

This is important for two different reasons. Firstly it allows us to cover both a wide range of fields and get deep into them, without us all tripping over each other’s work. People can specialise or generalise and science will move forward as a result. More importantly though, it allows us to cross check and revise our collective work and have confidence in what we are doing across the whole of science, even, or perhaps particularly, when we have little or no understanding of that field individually.

I really do not know very much about astrophysics (big surprise). But I know a couple of people who do. I know the training they go through, I know the colleagues they have who check and review their work (peer review) and examine their ideas in the literature (through papers). I also know that those people are also cross-examined and checked by still other people and so on. It would be enormously time consuming, but I bet I can find a chain of co-authors and collaborators that links me to my collegiate astrophysicists. I have collaborators in geology and biology and some of them will have collaborators who are chemists and biochemists and physicists right up to guys working on star formation. At every point each person will have anywhere from a handful to dozens or even hundreds of collaborators, and dozens or hundreds or even thousands more who are reading and reviewing and replying to their papers. They have enough expertise to analyse each link in the chain, and perhaps one or two links either side of it, even if they can’t begin to handle either end.

Sure, there’s no-one out there (I suspect) who knows as much as I do about a couple of specimens I’ve worked on, but there are people who know nearly as much, and who know more about other close specimens, and know more about the methods I used to test them. This constant cross checking and evaluation means that we can have real confidence in our results and methods. I may not know how the stats package on my computer runs an analysis I want to use, but I do know that the mechanics have been written and tested by software engineers, I know the stats concepts have been produced by mathematicians and the methods have been verified by others. There are biologists with enough maths background to check the principles behind it and the appropriateness of the methods and the correctness of the results and so on. I know the taxonomy of the group at hand is right because enough taxonomists have checked the principles used to erect the species and specialists on the clade have looked at the anatomy and ecology and confirmed the species are distinct and so on. They may not know each other or even recognise each other’s work (I suspect you could really confuse a mathematician with a graptolite and some whale baleen), but it all fits together.

In this sense then, scientists are not so much a group of individuals as a cohesive whole. There are, obviously, errors made (occasionally profound ones) but this colossal network of research ideas and analysis does produce a singular, and generally very reliable, whole. I may not understand astrophysics, but I recognise and trust the methods used to generate the data, the analyses and the people behind it. So can you.

5 Responses to “The science network”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 01/04/2010 at 8:59 pm

    Ah, the much-derided Argument From Authority.

    • 2 David Hone 02/04/2010 at 7:41 am

      Well, I have said this before Mike, ironically featuring you:

      I do take your point, but equally, the point is that things are cross checked. In theory it’s fine to say ‘no argument from authority, you should check everything yourself’, but that’s not practically possible. I can’t do high end maths, or physics, or chemistry and I have to rely on the chemists to assure me that carbon forms only certain bonds with other elements and certain ions and rely on physicists to check the stuff on isotope formation and decay. However, I know I’m honest and I know I check things by others to make sure others are honest, and I know peer review and general scientific antagonism means that other all but independent people are checking methods and results and analyses and data to see if they are right.

      Sort of everyone being hyper competent at all aspects of research enough to be able to check anything they want independently I think it’s the best we can do, and I actually think it’s pretty good.

  2. 3 mattvr 02/04/2010 at 7:57 am

    Possibly this works *against* scientists in the public eye.
    It’s easy for outsiders to find the checks and balances in the system suspicious when they’re perceived as exclusive to ‘colleagues’.
    It’s often perceived in the same category as ‘self regulating industry’.
    Of course it really comes down to your subjective position regarding the information science produces, it’s suspicious if it disagrees with your world view.
    So you end up with layman ‘experts’ constructing alternate scenarios for everything from pterosaur finger counts to climate change. For these people, saying ‘Network’ is like saying ‘Conspiracy’.
    The response of people to Science is a mixed bag, I think you’re reacting in a positive way.
    Penetrating the way science works for laypeople is the biggest step toward having the public perceive it in a positive way.
    It’s Easter so obviously I’ve reserved the right to ‘rabbit on’ a bit…

    • 4 David Hone 02/04/2010 at 8:52 am

      I can see how that could be seen. However, we do provide our data openly and freely and make the analyses etc. available to all. OK, so you might need a PhD in maths to check the maths but you can do it. At an easier level, for some of my work for example, anyone can wander into a museum free and pick up the fossil and check it against my drawing and make sure I got it right. And people do. You can’t get much more independent than that really, and yet these people are checking data and methods etc.

      However, unlike pretty much any industry, there is no incentive to make money, protect patents, data or anything else. Indeed there is (sadly often too aggressively) and incentive for people to find the errors of others and point them out as well as generally improving things. If something you have said is wrong it will very often be very quickly be spotted and fixed. Everyone makes mistakes and the silly arguments that researchers are terrified or losing grants and jobs and so hide results etc. are not true. You can’t publish a paper and hide the data, and if you try, people will complain, loudly, and things will then happen. We can’t operate in mainstream science like, say, some drugs companies who publish analyses without data or methods.

      We don’t hide because we can;’t hide and have no reason to hide. And while I see that what I wrote can be seen as self-regulating (and to an extent it is) it’s also externally regulated by other people.

      (Obvious caveat, not everyone is entirely honest, but that’s life, sadly. However, they are rare and do get caught).

  1. 1 The incredible links across science « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 20/02/2012 at 9:55 am
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