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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Philosophers argue that scientific conclusions need not be accurate, justified, or believed by their authors

A remarkable paper has just been posted to a philosophy of science preprint website. (It will be published in Synthase.) Like many papers in this field it's difficult to read and the logic is obtuse but the bottom line is that scientists don't really need to be held to the old standards that we scientists used to think are essential.

Dang, Haixin and Bright, Liam Kofi (2021) Scientific Conclusions Need Not Be Accurate, Justified, or Believed by their Authors. PhilSci Archive {PDF]

We argue that the main results of scientific papers may appropriately be published even if they are false, unjustified, and not believed to be true or justified by their author. To defend this claim we draw upon the literature studying the norms of assertion, and consider how they would apply if one attempted to hold claims made in scientific papers to their strictures, as assertions and discovery claims in scientific papers seem naturally analogous. We first use a case study of William H. Bragg’s early 20th century work in physics to demonstrate that successful science has in fact violated these norms. We then argue that features of the social epistemic arrangement of science which are necessary for its long run success require that we do not hold claims of scientific results to their standards. We end by making a suggestion about the norms that it would be appropriate to hold scientific claims to, along with an explanation of why the social epistemology of science—considered as an instance of collective inquiry—would require such apparently lax norms for claims to be put forward.

Really? I'm not going to review all the claims made in this paper but let's just look at one of the examples they give.

We will now argue that public scientific avowals should not be held to factive norms, justification norms, and belief norms.That is to say, we will argue that public avowals which violate all such norms are entirely appropriate in scientific inquiry. Our argument depends on how scientific findings are actually communicated in the scientific community, or the role such communications play. To illustrate the role of public scientific avowals in science, consider this scenario which a scientist may often find herself in:

“Zahra is a scientist working at the cutting edge of her field. Based on her research, she comes up with a new hypothesis. She diligently pursues inquiry according to the best practices of her field for many months. Her new hypothesis would be considered an important breakthrough discovery. Zahra knows that many more studies will have to be done in the future in order to confirm her hypothesis. Further, she has read the current literature and realizes that the existing research in her field does not, on net, support her hypothesis. She does not believe that she has conclusively proven the new hypothesis. Nonetheless, Zahra sends a paper reporting her hypothesis to the leading journal in her subdiscipline. In the abstract of the paper, the conclusion, and talks she gives on her work, she advocates for her hypothesis. Peer reviewers, while also sceptical of the new hypothesis, believed that her research had been carried out according to best known practices and her paper would be a valuable contribution to the field. Her paper, which purports to have advanced a new hypothesis, is published and widely read by members ofher community. In subsequent years, additional research in her field conclusively demonstrates that Zahra’s hypothesis was false.”

Public scientific avowals like Zahra’s maintaining her hypothesis do not live up to the standards set by the norms of assertion. Zahra’s avowals were false. Her avowals were not justified by the total evidence available to her, since she is acquainted with the existing research in her field which does not support her hypothesis. Furthermore, Zahra herself did not fully believe in her avowals. Nonetheless, we believe that some such avowals that fail norms we hold assertions to can still be important to the epistemic success of science. In fact, Zahra’s conduct is exactly how scientists ought to act in order to successfully communicate scientific findings. During active scientific research, public scientific avowals will often fail to meet the norms of assertion, yet scientists still need to continue to make avowals which report their findings to other members of their community.

Now, the fact that Zahra's hypothesis turned out to be false is irrelevant as long as she honestly thought that her data was accurate and her advocacy was scientifically justified. If she didn't actually believe that her new hypothesis was possibly correct then she was obliged, in my opinion, to state that she was just advocating it in order to stimulate further research. None of that violates acceptable standards of science as far as I'm concerned. (Note that I'm talking about science standards here and not epistemological standards. There may not be as much overlap as you would hope.)

It seems to me that these philosphers are nitpicking—something that philosopher do on occasion. The only interesting part of this discussion, as far as I'm concerned, is how Zahra deals with the fact that the existing evidence conflicts with her hypothesis. The proper way to deal with that is to describe these conflicts correctly and point out why they need to be reexamined in light of her new hypothesis. She may choose to ignore some evidence on the grounds that it's due to errors or bad science or she may argue that the existing data is incomplete. The key point is that she is obliged to follow Richard Feynman's rule.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

Richard Feynman in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman": Adventures of a Curious Character.

This brings me to some of the controversies that we currently face such as whether alternative splicing is a widespread phenomenon, whether there are tens of thousands of lncRNAs, and whether most of our genome is functional. As a general rule, with very few exceptions, everyone who is publically avowing these claims is disobeying Feynman's rule and for that reason they are doing bad science that should be unacceptable to the scientific community. The fact that so far it is NOT unacceptable is no reason for philosophers, or anybody else, to justify it.

The two philosphers who wrote this article are Haixin Dang and Liam Kofi Bright of Leeds University and the London School of Economics and Political Science respectively. They close their argument with,

When stating their central claims scientists should not be held to the kind of norms we hold assertions to if collective inquiry is to flourish. At the least, properly put forward scientific public avowals frequently do not and need not satisfy those norms of assertion that have been discussed in the analytic epistemology literature. Public avowals in science ought to be governed by a different norm.

I don't even know what this means. If it means that the "norm" of ENCODE researchers is acceptable because it's now so common then I strongly reject that idea. I still think there are standards that we should strive to live up to and I will continue to call out those scientists who flout them.1

The final paragraph of the Dang and Bright paper is,

Underlying all our arguments is the conviction that a scientific research community must ensure its members must spread out across logical space. We must allow for the exploration of different theories, by different methods, and accept that there will be different positions adopted as time goes by and results accumulate. Perhaps inquiry shall prove to be a process of never ending adjustment, and this will be our state in perpetuity. Or perhaps we may eventually learn from science what is actual. But even if so, in order to get there, we must allow that in the midst of inquiry, scientific public avowals will frequently be defences of implausible possibilities.

That's just silly motherhood stuff. Nobody disagree with that. Dissent and controversy are what's so exciting about science and nobody should try to suppress it. But there are definitely rules that scientists must follow if they are going to be respected and one of those rules is that you can't ignore dissent and controversy. You must respect and deal with those who disagree with you and if you try to pretend that your opponents don't exist then you are not a real scientist because you are doing the opposite of what the motherhood statement proposes; you are suppressing dissent and controversy.

I'm pretty sure that the key words in the paragraph are "analytic epsietemology literature" and what the authors are really debating is some set of historic philosophical rules about how scientists are supposed to behave. That's why Dang and Bright are proposing some sort of new standard called "contextualist justificatory norm" that epistemologists should follow. I'm not going down that rabbit hole. I'm addressing their paper from the context of how real scientists should behave not how real epistemologists should behave. They have very little in common in today's world.


  1. Amen to nobody suppresing dissent in science.
    Either this paper was meant as a strange teaching device or species of joke OR EVEN I would say this would not be published in North America.
    The purpose of science is simply to figure out how things work or make things work. Its about conclusions. in fact science is meant, and seen by the public, as a higher standard of investigation BEFORE conclusions are made. including by expert people.
    nothing to do with advancing error and that to the gain in some way of someone in saying they are doing science.
    Science is about the seeking of accurate conclusions or truth. Thats why organized creationism exists.

  2. "Science is about the seeking of accurate conclusions or truth."
    Not sure about the "truth" part, but your first first statement could be argued to be correct

    "Thats why organized creationism exists."

    No, creationism exists because people who don't have the ability to do science or who don't like the results science gives wanted an outlet for their preferred falsehoods.