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Introduction to a New Book: Good Science

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What is Good Science?

"I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds" --Robert Oppenheimer

Science is a vehicle for change. Arguably, no human endeavor has ever altered the course of history more dramatically than science. Further, the effects of scientific inquiry on the earth and its inhabitants, though already substantial, are certain to increase in the future. Homo sapiens is fast becoming Homo scientia.

Put simply, science can be understood as the pursuit of knowledge. Though scientists come in many varieties and they study an extraordinary diversity of subject matter, there are certain things that all scientists have in common. Scientists are knowledge-seekers, or, more accurately, good scientists are truth-seekers. Trifling as it may seem, that is actually a crucial distinction. Knowledge comes in many forms. Virtually any idea that pops into someone's head (i.e., from pink unicorns to space elevators) can be considered a form of knowledge. However, out of all the knowledge that humans generate, only a tiny fraction can be considered truthful. So, that begs the question, "What is truth?"

Truth is a challenging subject. Many people, whether they describe themselves as scientists or not, might insist that truth is nothing more than a description of facts. For example, it is true that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. At first glance, such a definition seems perfectly reasonable: truth should correspond with facts. However, the danger of such a definition is that facts are not always what they seem. Take, for example, the fact that the sun rises and sets on a daily basis. Although that statement offers a plausible description of certain facts, nevertheless, it is not true. The sun does no such thing. Based upon what astronomers have learned over the past several centuries, we know that the sun does not orbit the earth. Instead, the earth's rotation tends to instill the false impression that the universe revolves around earthlings. Our real relationship with the cosmos is very different. Additionally, for those who dwell near the earth's poles, rather than rising and setting on a daily basis, the sun often appears and disappears for months at a time. Consequently, facts often look very different depending upon one's perspective.

That said, it is important to emphasize that there is an essential relationship between truth and facts. In other words, one can't say anything truthful without reference to verifiable facts. Thus, I might claim that I have spotted the Sasquatch in my backyard; however, unless I can produce hard evidence of such a mythical visit, no one should believe a word I say. Good scientists certainly wouldn't.

Typically, good science can be understood as knowledge-seeking activities that assert a very clear linkage between truth and facts. Thus, for the most part, good scientists tend to view ideas that are not supported by facts (e.g., Sasquatches popping in for tea) as fantasies. Indeed, imaginative humans have a penchant for dreaming up all sorts of notions that, scientifically speaking, are rubbish. Consequently, good scientists usually draw a sharp distinction between facts and fantasies. Good science is devoted to the former and dismissive of the latter.

In important respects, this perspective is entirely justifiable. Facts matter. However, I will argue in this book that scientific progress is often contingent upon seeking truths that lie beyond established facts. In other words, fantasies can often inspire scientific progress that facts might otherwise impede. In chapter one, I will examine a critical juncture in the history of science: the trials and triumphs of Galileo Galilei. Good scientists often pay a hefty price for advancing new truths. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Galileo's persecution at the hands of the Inquisition.

As a result of his astronomical observations, Galileo discovered important new facts in the heavens. Unfortunately, for Galileo, his discoveries could not be reconciled within the leading cosmology of his day. Rather than embracing Galileo's novel ideas, powerful forces repudiated Galileo for challenging sacred truths and, implicitly, the authority of the dominant theological structure. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant, and good scientists the world over learned an important lesson: knowledge and power are inextricably linked. May truth-seekers beware.

In chapter two, I will focus on the relationship between power and knowledge. Against the backdrop of Charles Darwin's efforts to develop his theory of evolution, I review the legendary debate between Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. While Popper was convinced that truth was indispensable to the endeavors of good scientists, Kuhn dismissed truth as a chimera. For Kuhn, truth was an inconsistent standard that drifted to and fro with every paradigmatic shift.

Drawing upon the strengths of each argument, I will advance an alternate definition of truth. As Darwin's evolutionary intellectual development illustrates, although facts may appear dramatically different from the perspective of one paradigm or another, truth is a consistent standard that enables good scientists, such as Charles Darwin, to develop entirely new explanations for previously inexplicable facts.

In chapter three, I examine the complexities of defining truth within the context of multi-dimensional social realities. Robert Dahl argued that good scientists should confine their inquiries to empirically observable facts. On the other hand, C. Wright Mills contended that most social phenomena are invisible to the eye and, thus, can only be imagined. I argue that good science needs to be redefined in order to take the invisible, but very real, influences of invisible social phenomena into account. Doing so not only broadens the definition of social reality, but also redefines the nature of truth-seeking.

In chapter four, I examine the influences of scientific fact production on the evolution of new realities. In the late 1950s, the United States and Soviet Union embarked on the space race. The early stages of the space race were marked by a seemingly endless series of Soviet triumphs. In an effort to boost the United States out of its technological doldrums, President John F. Kennedy challenged his countrymen to resolve a seemingly impossible problematic: landing astronauts on the moon by 1970. A problematic can be understood as a daunting intellectual challenge that can only be resolved by redefining reality.

In other words, when JFK announced his moon-landing problematic, the United States lagged behind the Soviets in every critical area of space science achievement. Thus, for the United States to beat the Soviets to the moon, the United States would need to become the world's most technologically-advanced nation. Far-fetched as it may have seemed, the United States had to invent the facts that would transform Kennedy's fantasy into a reality. In doing so, the United States reinvented itself as the most powerful, and technologically-advanced nation on the planet. Thus, new truths are sometimes more a product of fantasy than reality.

In chapter five, I will examine a contemporary, and as yet unresolved, problematic: artificial intelligence (AI). In 1950, Alan Turing proposed that computers would one day rival the intelligence of their human creators. In many ways, Turing's challenge has inspired the production of entirely new facts (i.e., new types of smart machines), and, in so doing, Turing's problematic has helped to transform the substance of social reality. While I disagree with researchers who argue that AI already exists, nevertheless, I believe that Turing's problematic will continue to inspire significant technological achievements for some time to come.

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http://goodscience.sociology.org/

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University -- Pueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The (more...)
 
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Scientists are knowledge-seekers, or, more accurat... by Timothy McGettigan on Thursday, Sep 15, 2011 at 9:58:24 AM
I think it's important to acknowledge that what is... by Jim Arnold on Sunday, Sep 18, 2011 at 5:40:32 AM
if we cannot benefit from it? Yet as the associate... by David Chester on Thursday, Sep 15, 2011 at 11:42:20 AM
understanding of science, some good general classe... by Daniel Geery on Thursday, Sep 15, 2011 at 12:14:42 PM
Agreed. The path to a better, brighter future is c... by Timothy McGettigan on Thursday, Sep 15, 2011 at 1:59:26 PM
one of my favorite quotes! (Cervantes, Don Quixote... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Sep 16, 2011 at 12:10:27 PM
Truth-seeking is a journey that often leads us in ... by Timothy McGettigan on Friday, Sep 16, 2011 at 1:43:49 PM