"Right" and "Wrong" in Science

"Right" and "Wrong" in Science (and Elsewhere?):
A Conversation
28 June 2007

Following a talk by Paul Grobstein on "Thinking about Science: Fact versus Story Telling", Natsu Fukui, a Bryn Mawr psychology major, and Astra Bryant, a Bryn Mawr biology major, continued thinking with Paul about some of the issues raised. The following excerpts from email exchanges are provided to encourage still wider conversation. Additional contributions are welcome and can be made using the "post new comment" form at the bottom of the page. Comments will appear after a delay to prevent spam postings.

Some additional materials on Serendip relevant to this conversation include

Natsu to Paul - 13 June

Thank you for your talk today. From what I understood, your idea seemed to be that we should always strive to be "wrong" in science. You mentioned that in real science, there are no instances where scientists go jumping out crying "I was right! I was right!" I am not sure if I'm understanding you correctly with this, because I personally feel that as experimenters, we are often trying to prove that we are right in thinking that a traditional way of thinking is actually wrong. Well, probably not "prove" but what I mean is that through experimentation, we are trying to obtain support to show that we are "right" in believing that our ideas (or even just intuitive feelings) that what is generally believed is actually wrong. So in my mind, that is still trying to show that our claim is "right".

I must say that I do not have enough experience in scientific research to
illustrate what I am trying to say with personal experience. However, this is what I think I am often doing in the field of education. That is, I have this "feeling" that what is considered as the ideal form (or just the traditional or only form) of education is not as good as what I have in mind. Thus, I try out my idea (which is a kind of experiment, at least in my mind) to show that I am right in thinking that something else is wrong. But throughout this process, I am usually focused on showing that I am "right" rather than "wrong".

This is why I am not sure about your idea of striving to be wrong or being rewarded for being wrong. It might just be a small phrasing issue, but I think whether one is focusing on being right or wrong is actually a really important issue.

Paul to Natsu - 14 June

I too was a little worried about how the "right"/"wrong" contrast came out yesterday. I agree with you that one may indeed appropriately aspire to show that "what is generally believed is actually wrong" and take legitimate pleasure/satisfaction in being able to do so. Having done so, however, one is then in the position of having what one has oneself developed become "what is generally believed" and so one needs to switch hats and aspire to showing that that too is actually wrong. The persistent drive is not to be "right" but to be "less wrong".

Does that help/make sense? No, I don't think its a small phrasing issue. Science (and other things) in which people try to prove they are right gets into all kinds of problems (cf " The Perils and Potentials of 'I Believe'". Scientists, it seems to me, should be willing/able to be skeptical not only of other people's understandings but, at least as importantly, of their own as well.

Natsu to Paul - 14 June

I agree with you that we must continue to question our conclusions, even after we have come to a point where it seems like we have accumulated enough support to show that our ideas are "right". I wasn't really thinking about feeling pleasure/satisfaction in showing that we are right to be so important, but I do think that it is very important for us to have some level of confidence in order to spread our ideas to a larger audience. If we are always expressing our thoughts with skepticism, not only will it not be convincing but it will also tend to be less clear to those who are not experts in the field, and thus will be challenging for them to grasp. In my mind, this is a major problem. It may be fine for the individual scientist in terms of intellectual exploration, but if ideas are not understood and accepted by a large number of people, it is less likely for new scientific thoughts/ideas to be of some contribution to the society.

Paul to Natsu - 15 June

Interesting issue, actually two slightly different but related issues I think. One is the need for "some level of confidence in order to spread our ideas to a larger audience." I very much agree that "confidence" is important, particularly for people who think there are less wrong ways to do things in science or in education or in both. I'm less sure that one needs for this purpose to believe one is "right." It seems to me possible to acknowledge that there is no "right" in any absolute sense, and still in any give situation make clear to people what is wrong with current understandings/practices and how a new understanding/practice is preferable in terms of those problems (see Writing Descartes ... for more along these lines).

I just had a conversation along these lines with Astra Bryant who offered the suggestion that one should distinguish between global and local "right": acknowledging that there is no absolute right doesn't require that one give up the notion of "right" in particular local contexts. That might be a useful way to think about it. Maybe we can get Astra to join the conversation and expand a bit on this approach?

The related but slightly different issue is how to be "convincing," ie how to best try to make ideas "spread" to other people. Its here, I think, where the temptation to assert some kind of global "rightness" is greatest ... and where for me at least it is most important to resist it. I certainly would like to see changes in education and in how people think about evolution, global warming, stem cell research, and so on. At the same time, I'm acutely aware that there are lots of different arguments on these subjects, grounded in lots of different conceptions of global rightness, and that disagreements about global rightness themselves are a cause of a great deal of human suffering. In this context, it seems to me one wants to avoid contributing to continuing conflict about the sources of global "rightness" (cf Two Cultures or One? and Science and Conversation), acknowledging instead that such a thing doesn't exist and hence that local challenges should be dealt with in local terms. One may not, in any given case, succeed in "convincing" people of a particular local "rightness" but one can, at least, help people to learn to resist assertions of global rightness in the future. And hopefully, by so doing, contribute to bringing into existence human cultures that are better at coping with local problems than ours have been so far (cf Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Creation).

Astra to Paul - 27 June

As I had discussed with you, I think that in order to make the claim that in science, it is more important to be "right" than "wrong", we must draw a distinction between local and global right and wrong. The local right/wrong is what Natsu is referring to when she says that "as experimenters, we are often trying to prove that we are right." Our individual thoughts on what is right and wrong form a local "way of looking at the world". This can be identical, parallel, or at complete odds with the global scientific "way of looking at the world" that is constructed from published, peer reviewed work. It is this global story that we as scientists attempt to show to be wrong and amend with our local "right" story. This methodology of story construction is implicit with sciences' overall organization into individual laboratories supporting and expanding a global understanding/story.

I find it interesting to consider where the non-scientific community enters into this model. A researching scientist would, by this model, have two stories that explain the world - the global, and the local. Remembering which is which can sometimes be difficult ( which I can personally attest to), but I must imagine that for a non-scientist, seeing the constant introduction, rejection, and acceptance of the local views into the global story, must be horribly confusing, and worse, misleading about both the scientific process, and what the global story actually states. I feel that many public misconceptions about scientific principles may have their origin in local stories that were taken as global.

I have been spending quite some times over the past week considering the relative importance of "popularizing" science, mostly from the perspective of the scientist (and not the general public). You and Natsu discussed briefly the mechanics of scientific knowledge making a contribution to society, and how it was important not to confuse people with local stories that conflict with the global story. I am all for cramming as much scientific knowledge into "non-career scientists'" heads as possible. Personally, I cannot imagine not wanting to know the science behind the world. But my perspective is hardly unbiased, and it has been brought to my attention several times that many, if not most people, are perfectly happy going about life without knowing why the birds have started to sing so incredibly early in the morning.

It seems to me that there is a growing perceived need in the scientific community to explain everything to the general public, and for them to understand in order for science to be making a contribution to society. This idea that in addition to changing
and expanding the global story we scientists know, we must be constantly exposing, teaching, even cajoling the general public to become more educated and interested in the details of science, is possibly somewhat self destructive. I feel it is dangerous to measure the worth of a scientific principal in terms of how well the general public understands and accepts it. This train of thinking does, I know, argue for the concept of a specialized group of people doing specialized things, but I worry that scientists are generally becoming too concerned with telling people how something works. Our enthusiastic (at times) dedication to this project is probably contributing to the public uncertainty about key scientific knowledge. Could there be too many teachers yelling too many things at a confused and slightly unwilling class?

I am forever trying to explain what I do in lab to my friends and family, generally beginning and interspersed with long explanations of how the nervous system works. For the most part, I have found that peoples‚ eyes glaze over once I pass the three sentence mark. I have begun experimenting with reducing explanations, which has left my audience much happier at the end of the conversation. There is, of course, a big difference between leech swimming and, say, global climate change, but in both cases, once the eyes of our audience are glazed over from too much detail ( or just too many big words), it is very difficult to get the vital message across, and to recapture their attention the next time. With all the problems that scientific community has been having, I begin to wonder if we don't need to change tactics, and stop trying to educate the whole world so thoroughly.

  1. Does the general public truly need all the knowledge we are shoving at them?
  2. I would argue that happy, productive lives are not made or lost depending on this knowledge.
  3. In the role of scientist/oracle of natural disasters and things-people-must-do-to-save-the-world/nation/whales, explanations, while making science transparent, may be getting in the way of results (a difficult idea whose connotations I'm not sure I like at all, even thought I'm proposing it).

An example of the public not needing to understand science for it to make a difference is biotechnology. People don‚t need to understand how a dialysis machine works in order for it to make a contribution to society.

Some questions:

  • Are our education attempts getting in the way of our research, and are they also propagating further problems with confused, half-knowledgeable people?
  • Would it be possible to change society without explaining the small mechanics to the public? How disruptive would the repercussions of such a change in policy be, and would it even be possible now that the public are accustomed to science being presented to them?
  • Do we, as scientists, want such a change in policy? (I am not sure I do.)
  • Finally, when we run into resistance from the public, should we be so concerned at the repulsion of our education?

I find the importance we place in public/popular acceptance of science interesting. I think the interaction between the public, the government from whence comes science-driven policy and funding, and scientists to be a curious and complicated one.

A final anecdote that I wanted to share with you. I was wearing this years‚ biology t-shirt (the evolution one) while eating breakfast as Haffner Dining Hall. One of the administrators for one of the strings camps staying on campus read my shirt in line, and thought it amusing. When I explained my shirt was the annual department t-shirt, she asked me in all seriousness, if we didn't have any creationists on campus. Rather
taken aback, I said that as we were the Biology Department, it didn't‚ much matter. She replied that she would have though we would have wanted/needed to have a debate about it issue. I found her view of biologists as needing to challenge/get acceptance for our ideas before placing them on our t-shirts to be provoking and actually rather irritating. Are scientists really seen to be in such need of public reinforcement?

Paul to Astra - 27 June

I like your "local" and "global" right and wrong. Indeed scientists are in the business of showing global stories to be "wrong" and may do so by showing their own different "local story" is .... right? One has to be, I think, a little careful here, since "right" tends to carry the connotation of completion/authority. How about showing their own different story to be "less wrong"? Maybe if we used that term we would ourselves have less trouble remembering "which is which", and there would be fewer "public misconceptions"?

I also agree that there are lots of interesting/important problems at the science/public understanding interface. I hadn't thought particularly about the "popularizing science" issues you raise, but think they're well worth noticing. Yep, I think there is indeed "a growing perceived need in the scientific community to explain everything to the general public" and that that can indeed be both confusing and "self-destructive". My sense is that there are at least three problems here. One is the wish of scientists (like anyone else) to have others think what they do is meaningful/important. A second is the thing you mentioned, scientists themselves often forget that they never have it globally "right". A third is that many people actually want someone to tell them what is "right".

That's why I think its so important for scientists to help everyone understand that you can't get "right" out of science, only "less wrong" (and perhaps to get people to learn not to ask for "right" from anyone but only for the best sense one can make of observations to date). Perhaps if we focused more on that task (cf Science Matters ... How?), we would find it easier to remember the distinction between "less wrong" and "right" ourselves, and be more comfortable with our own contributions to understanding, distinguishing important but local work from things that are actually more globally significant? We could learn to be content with offering stories that others might find useful (when they might) and worry less about whether they are "accepted" or not?

Astra to Paul - 28 June

While I agree with you that sometimes "scientists themselves often forget that they never have it globally "right"", I also believe that even when scientists keep the distinction in mind, the translation of the science from scientific community to popular knowledge can often result in the loss of such distinctions.

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