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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.

By | February 1, 2011

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011When 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 from the book here.

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