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The Evolution of Credibility

By Frederick Grinnell The Evolution of Credibility The winding path that an interesting result takes to become a bona fide discovery is just one of the topics covered in this new book on the practice of science. Oxford University Press, 2011 When I was a graduate student in biochemistry at Tufts University School of Medicine, I read an abridged version of Montaigne’s Essays. My friend Margaret Rea (a.k.a. Marci Trindle) and I spent hours wandering around B

By | February 1, 2011

The Evolution of Credibility

The winding path that an interesting result takes to become a bona fide discovery is just one of the topics covered in this new book on the practice of science.

Oxford University Press, 2011

When I was a graduate student in biochemistry at Tufts University School of Medicine, I read an abridged version of Montaigne’s Essays. My friend Margaret Rea (a.k.a. Marci Trindle) and I spent hours wandering around Boston discussing the meaning and implications of the essays. Michel de Montaigne lived in the 16th century near Bordeaux, France. He did his writing in the southwest tower of his chateau, where he surrounded himself with a library of more than 1,000 books, a remarkable collection for that time. Montaigne posed the question, “What do I know?” By extension, he asks us all: Why do you believe what you think you know? My latest attempt to answer Montaigne can be found in Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic, originally published in January 2009 and soon to be out in paperback from the Oxford University Press.

Scientists tend to be glib about answering Montaigne’s question. After all, the success of technology testifies to the truth of our work. But the situation is more complicated.

In the idealized version of how science is done, facts about the world are waiting to be observed and collected by objective researchers who use the scientific method to carry out their work. But in the everyday practice of science, discovery frequently follows an ambiguous and convoluted route. We aim to be objective, but we cannot escape the context of our unique life experiences. Prior knowledge and interests influence what we experience, what we think our experiences mean, and the subsequent actions we take. Opportunities for misinterpretation, error, and self-deception abound.

Consequently, discovery claims should be thought of as protoscience. Similar to newly staked mining claims, they are full of potential. But it takes communal scrutiny and acceptance to transform a discovery claim into a full-fledged discovery. This is the credibility process, through which the individual researcher’s me, here, now becomes the community’s anyone, anywhere, anytime. Objective knowledge is the goal, not the starting point.

Once a discovery claim becomes public, the discoverer receives intellectual credit. But, unlike with mining claims, the community takes control of what happens next. Within the complex social structure of the scientific community, researchers make discoveries; editors and reviewers act as gatekeepers by controlling the publication process; other scientists use the new finding to suit their own purposes; and finally, the public (including other scientists) receives the new discovery and possibly accompanying technology. As a discovery claim works its way through the community, a dialectic of interaction and confrontation between shared and competing beliefs about the science and the technology involved transforms an individual’s discovery claim into the community’s credible discovery.

Two paradoxes infuse this credibility process. First, scientific work tends to focus on some aspect of prevailing knowledge that is viewed as incomplete or incorrect. Little reward accompanies duplication and confirmation of what is already known and believed. The goal is new-search, not re-search. Not surprisingly, newly published discovery claims and credible discoveries that appear to be important and convincing will always be open to challenge and potential modification or refutation by future researchers. Second, novelty itself frequently provokes disbelief. Nobel Laureate and physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi once described discovery as “seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” But thinking what nobody else has thought and telling others what they have missed may not change their views. Sometimes years are required for truly novel discovery claims to be accepted and appreciated.

In the end, credibility “happens” to a discovery claim—a process that corresponds to what philosopher Annette Baier has described as the commons of the mind. “We reason together, challenge, revise, and complete each other’s reasoning and each other’s conceptions of reason,” she wrote in a book with that title. In the case of science, it is the commons of the mind where we find the answer to Montaigne’s question: Why do you believe what you think you know?

Frederick Grinnell is Professor of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where he has been on the faculty since 1972. He divides his time between doing science and reflecting on what doing science means. Everyday Practice of Science was shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010. Read an excerpt of the book here.

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Comments

Avatar of: Richard Brown

Richard Brown

Posts: 1

February 7, 2011

I was recently privileged to hear Professor Grinnell speak. The deapth of his thought about why we believe what we believe, and the clarity with which he communicates that thought, is evident in his short article, "The Evolution of Credibility". He clearly describes the transistion from "me, here, now" to "anyone, anywhere, anytime". In the presentation I attended he elaborated on the more fundamental questions about the roles of God and science, about intelligable rather than intelligent design, and about the pathways to understanding as presented by philosophers and scientists, including many quotations from Einstein used to flesh out those fundamental issues. For anyone wanting to explore the deep questions of science, God and philosophy in a clear, well reasoned manner, Fred Grinnell is an author to consider.
Avatar of: Richard Gordon

Richard Gordon

Posts: 3

February 8, 2011

...nor their willingness to approve grant funds to test new ideas. The peer review system is so often used to suppress innovation, that the ?truly novel discovery? often never enters the ?commons of the mind?, or is delayed so whole generations of the public who pay for it miss the benefits of its fruits. The benign view of science discourse presented above hardly fits reality. A funding system that recognizes and bypasses the resistance of those with entrenched ideas to new ones is sorely needed. We need democratization of science, not gatekeepers. Fortunately the Internet is rapidly replacing this old model, at least for scientific publication, if not yet funding.\n-Richard Gordon, gordonr@cc.umanitoba.ca
Avatar of: Alex Fedotov

Alex Fedotov

Posts: 1

March 1, 2011

Dear Proffessor, Frederick Grinnel\nA clear and straightforward about this idea in the development of consciousness I wrote 15 years ago in his work samoopublikovannoj in his avfedotov.narod.ru and unfortunately received only one review in English of the scientist from St. Petersburg to nanotechnology. The anglijsom language to write such a work can't be and nikčemu because of different traditions and understanding of reality. But the essence will always remain one experience and experience of everyday scientific hermit trudâgi in science are different levels of generality and biology as science only begins its path of development will be a lot of "l?eotkrytij and speculation until it is changed and he's already method ? at sunrise that lit the horizon is analysis and synthesis of information on experiences past experimental data and computer simulation-bioinformacionnuû. There will be many new and interesting discoveries including the problem of cancer where I toil as hermit consciously around 1965. But I would not want to focus on evidence that everything they see. The opening is what no one else saw. But his confession has been delayed due to public opinion "scientific conservatism" as this rather unscientific. And I will gladly read your work ? especially since I know almost all your work in the field of biology. \nBest regards Alex Fedotov , Ass.Prof.in Moscow State University of applied biotechnology.\n1 Mart 2011\nMoscow.\n
Avatar of: Gene Godbold

Gene Godbold

Posts: 1

March 1, 2011

Check out "Tacit knowing, truthful knowing" on Amazon.

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