A meme that seemed to run through much of the comments on Jeremy’s recent post on salesmanship in science seemed to be that you could be a wonderful scientist but a terrible communicator of your science and that you would suffer for this career-wise and that would be unfair. This came as a surprise to me. I have a hard time thinking of people who I would call a great scientist but a terrible communicator. Now they may have stage fright and give a bad talk, but write great papers (or vice versa). And they may be bad networkers or bad self-promoters. But the sterotypical genius with ground breaking ideas but who drools and can’t put two words together let alone coherently communicate what they’ve done and why it is important, no. Which leads to the deeper, more philosophical question, if there is “good science” inside somebody’s head and it can’t get out, is it science? Hence the allusion in the title to the zen koan about a tree falling in the forest. Or if somebody is shipwrecked on a desert island does research for 10 years and then dies and their notes decay before they are found, have they done science?
I am certain most of you will say of course, absolutely they have done science! But I want to probe this by arguing the opposite position, that they have not done science. Of course to discuss this one must define what it means to “do science.” To my mind some of the most interesting work on this is what is known as the demarcation question – i.e. what distinguishes science from pseudo-science like ESP or alien abductions? Popper and his student Lakatos both tackled this question but came to rather opposite conclusions.
The thing Popper and Lakatos both agreed on is that real science has ideas that are testable (and specifically can be shown wrong). This is often oversimplified in popular discourse to the idea that the “scientific method” makes science what it is.In reality the scientific method is no simple formula, but a complex twisted path. Indeed the essence of that complexity is why I will argue that uncommunicated science is not science.
For Popper it was fairly black and white. A hypothesis makes a prediction which can be falsified. Repeated attempts at falsification fails.Evidence accrues to theory. A single failure throws out the hypothesis. It is at least conceivable in this view of science that you can do science by yourself without communicating. But this is overly simple. Indeed, I blame Popper for the cartoon version of the scientific method found in elementary schools around the world. As many philosophers of science since Popper have shown the real scientific process is much more complex.
Even Popper’s student, Imre Lakatos argued for a more complex view. Lakatos argued for the idea of research programs. And that specific tests of research programs can sometimes fail without requiring us to throw out the research program, so it is the total balance of evidence that counts. And Lakatos very explicitly brought in the human element. In his view, ultimately the metric of balance of evidence is what research programs scientists choose to invest their valuable time and energy in. Lakatos did not live in a classical Greek, Platonic, idealist world where perfect truth exists and advances in crystal clear steps. In short, I would say, Lakatos lived in the real world. And in the real world science is a muddy messy and ultimately social process. Kuhn and Feyerbrand later doubled down on this notion of science as a social process. It is indeed a major theme in modern philosophy of science.
Here’s a question? If you want to answer the fundamental question, ” what does science know to be true today?”, can you do it without falling back on ideas of consensus or textbooks (or Platonic ideals that can’t be objectively agreed upon in this world)? No, you can’t. There is an inner core of knowledge that “all reputable scientists agree on” but there is a fuzzy boundary that is actively debated. And how do things move from that fuzzy boundary into the “well-known core” or off into the graveyard of dead theories? It is a social process. Make no mistake the consensus can be and not infrequently is wrong. But science does have self-correcting methods for that in the long run, and they are also social.
Take the example of the 2005 Nobel prize in medicine awarded for the discovery that a bacteria caused stomach ulcers. In the early 1980s Marshall and Warren developed this theory based on correlation – H pylori bacteria were always found in individuals with ulcers. They proposed this and were roundly ridiculed. “Everybody knows bacteria can’t survive in the acid environment of the stomach”. Failure ensued – many pigs were forced to drink H. pylori and nothing happened. Then in an experiment that was probably as important for its storyline features as its decisiveness, Marshall drank H. pylori himself and instantly got gastritis (precursor to ulcers). The fact that he was brave/alturistic enough to risk his own body and that it was on a human overrode the narrative of repeated failure on pigs. We now know there is considerable variation in humans in immune resistance to H. pylori and Marshall apparently didn’t have much immunity. It is entirely possible that if his partner Warren drank the H. pylori nothing would have happened. Much follow on research and gradual convincing of the skeptics, and now we no longer blame ulcers on spicy food and a hedonistic lifestyle but treat simply with antibiotics and a Nobel prize came in 2005. At what point in that story did we “know” that H. pylori causes ulcers? And can you disentangle that from the social processes? I would say definitively not!
The theory of continental drift has a very parallel but even longer story. Wegener proposed it in 1912 but was ridiculed (in part because he was a climatologist rather than a geologist). At one geological conference (I believe it was in the 1950s), they actually asked the room to stand up and walk to one side of the room or the other to vote on whether people believed in continental drift. The idea was roundly rejected (and remained out of textbooks). Then in the 1960s a number of phenomenon relating to seafloor spreading uncovered by paleomagnetism (a new technique) rapidly changed minds. And by the 1970s it was in all the textbooks. When did continental drift become a scientifictruth? and can you disentangle this from the social process? Of course not.
So if you cannot disentangle science from pseudo-science, or determine scientific progress and ultimately scientific truth separate from the social process scientists go through as a group, can a scientist do science that remains uncommunicated (or terribly communicated)? I would say no. Now you can invoke the idea of the genius but anti-social, illiterate scientist who has a translator. But really, how many examples of this can you come up with? Too much is lost in the translation. The most forceful communicator is likely to be the person with the insight.
So I would submit that science is inseparable from communication and the social processes that make it science. Yes you can be a good scientist but an imperfect communicator. Even a good scientist with noticeable flaws in some aspects of communication. Almost all scientists likely fall in this category. But can you be a great scientist who can’t communicate. If its just running around in your head and stays there, is cience occurring? I would say no.
The three main implications of this are:
- As scientists we need to take our communications skills seriously and constantly work on improving them. And as teachers and mentors we need to devote serious attention to teaching communication of science.
- And for me at least, to circle back to the original question at the top of the post, it is definitely not “unfair” that somebody who is a bad communicator does not advance in science. It is a central part of the job.
- This is the real reason I push every student to publish their dissertation even if they’ve already landed a job in .e.g. a government agency where they don’t need publications. Its not science until its published.
What do you think? Do I have a point, but I’ve gone too far? Can one do science in one’s own brain and never communicate it?