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Friday, May 26, 2006

Conflicting Opinions

Disagreements are unsettling. In a stable world, we like our experts to provide simple and authoritative truth.

Science isn't really supposed to work like that. Science should be constantly open to new discoveries, and new interpretations and explanations of old discoveries. [Kant, Peirce] Science is supposed to work with conjectures, proofs, refutations and paradigm shifts. [Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend] These are essentially architectural notions. [See my earlier post on Open Architecture]

But the institutions and bureaucracies of science don't conform to this stereotype. There is a closed loop of research funding and journal publication, based on so-called peer review. In a recent report the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific club, deplores the popular media coverage of science and calls upon scientists to exercise greater self-restraint in publicizing findings that have not undergone the proper peer review process. [Source: John Kay, Financial Times, May 22, 2006]

As John Kay argues, this is essentially an appeal for scientists to be dull and boring. Peer review is inward looking, inhibits new and radical ideas, and serves as a kind of professional censorship. He concludes
"Any form of censorship, including self-censorship and censorship by fellow professionals, encourages complacency and discourages innovation. The history of modern scholarship is that, more slowly than we would wish, truth and new knowledge emerge only from a cacophony of conflicting opinions."

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