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Is The Scientific Paper  A Fraud?

 
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Old 24-Jun-2008, 08:20 PM (20:20)     1        21094
Gurdur
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Is The Scientific Paper A Fraud?
This interesting question was posed by Peter Medawar, a distinguished biologist and Nobel Prize winner (1915 - 1987), talking of papers submitted to scientific journals and the like.

Medawar made clear that his point was not to claim that the scientific paper misrepresented facts -- he wasn't claiming that at all, and he made clear that it doesn't (at least usually) -- but instead to explain that the usual scientific paper "misrepresents the processes of thought that ... gave rise to the work described in the paper." IOW, Medawar was saying the usual scientific paper fraudulently misrepresents the nature of scientific thought. I'll do my best here to reproduce the gist of his argument, and also I will interpose a few comments of my own.

Medawar described the orthodox structure of the usual scientific paper:
  1. Introduction
  2. Previous work
  3. Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion [conclusions]
In the "Introduction", there's a bit of explanation on what the paper is to be all about (Medawar is marvellously satirical when he describes the "Introduction" as that "in which you merely describe the general field in which your scientific talents are going to be exercised").

The section for "Previous work" is more or less self-explanatory; in Medawar's words, "in which you concede, more or less graciously, that others have dimly groped towards the fundamental truths that you are now about to expound".

Methods, and/or methodology, is straightforward; but to interpose a comment of my own, it's worth noting that the methodology section in a scientific paper is the most essential, the most contentious, the most difficult, and also very often the most overlooked, the most unread.

The Results section is again more or less straightforward. Commentary on or claims of significance of said results is left until the next section, the Discussion (conclusions) section.

Medawar made the point that, up until the Discussion section, the writer is in essence pretending that his his or her mind is completely free of bias, that his or her mind is a mere tabula rasa, a blank slate, onto which the facts of the observations and/or experiment(s) have magically inserted themselves, and inexorably lead by pure logic to only a certain set of possible conclusions. Medawar then also mentions that the claim that deductionism (the theory all must only be deduced) underlies science was already shown to be bunkum by John Stuart Mill and Roger Bacon. BTW, Roger Bacon (circa 1214-1294),can also said I suppose to be the grandfather of verificationism, since he made clear the need for independent verification, something that not only underlies all of modern science, but also eventually gave rise to verificationism as a school with A.J. Ayer in 1936.

John Stuart Mill, like others, saw that deduction alone is useless for scientific discovery, since deduction can only work to make clear information that is already there, that is already in the starting, known premises. IOW, it uncovers nothing new and discovers nothing. In its place, Mill and others promoted induction (more or less simply collecting vast sets of data and seeing what one can boil down out of them) as the model of scientific discovery -- but there are serious problems with induction as a basis too. Karl Popper famously regarded induction as a myth.

Then Medawar notes that what is at most wrong in the basis of the presentation of the scientific paper is that it pretends to start out with no expectations, and pretends to come to conclusions unaffected by expectations, yet as Medawar says, in a note aimed at inductionism, but which serves just as well for aiming at the traditional form of the scientific paper, that, "there is no such things as unprejudiced observation. Every act of observation that we make is biased." Medawar adds that it is a vulgar myth to suppose that hypotheses are deduced, that instead in fact hypotheses are the bases from which one deduces.

Medawar suggests in the place of all the foregoing that one takes that hypotheses are "inspirational in character", and that then hypotheses are tested; that total process being what he sees as the scientific method, and how the scientific paper should be presented, instead of its current form. This model, as Medewar acknowledges, is based on the "hypothetico-deductive interpretation" as developed by Karl Popper, and pioneered by William Whewell.

Medawar then proposes that the scientific paper should, instead of its (still-)current model, be written and published in the form of
  1. Discussion [conclusions]
  2. Previous work
  3. Methods
  4. Results
I assume he would see the Introduction as being subsumed by the Discussion part. Medawar adds that, "scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted byways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind. What, after all, is the good of scientists reproaching others for their neglect of, or indifference to, the scientific style of thinking they set such great store by, if their own writings show that they themselves have no clear understanding of it?"

_____________

I found Peter Medawar's essay, "Is The Scientific Paper A Fraud?", among other essays in his book, "The Threat And The Glory : Reflections On Science And Scientists", first published in 1990, my copy being printed in 1991. It is out of print at this time, though you might find a second-hand copy on Amazon below or on eBay.

For those in the USA

The Threat And The Glory

For those in Britain or other countries

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Old 26-Jun-2008, 10:00 AM (10:00)     2        21120
Don Alhambra
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I seem to remember discussing this before, somewhere. Some random thoughts follow.

In essence Medawar has a point, but there are many different types of journals that all demand different types of style for the papers you submit. Nature tends to put the methods last, for example, and it's not the only journal to do so. Usually all papers are preceded by an abstract anyway, so that you can get a brief precis of what the authors did, which helps to put the whole paper in context. In essence you know the conclusions before you start reading, and then you read to find out how the authors got there.

I like that the introduction comes first, because a good introduction should do three things: 1) put the research in context, which is really important especially if you don't know the field; 2) provide a good rationale for performing the study in the first place; and 3) lay out the hypotheses that are being tested.

Quote:
"scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted byways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind. What, after all, is the good of scientists reproaching others for their neglect of, or indifference to, the scientific style of thinking they set such great store by, if their own writings show that they themselves have no clear understanding of it?"
This confuses me a bit because pretty much all of the papers I've read either go: 'we wondered if Y would happen if we varied X' or 'we varied X and Y happened'. The two are similar but not identical - the first is exactly what Medawar describes, and the second is more a post-hoc rationalisation for an unexpected finding.

I dunno... I haven't read too many older papers recently. Maybe all the scientists whose work I read take Medawar to heart - after all this essay was published a few decades ago.

An enjoyable counterpart is a paper called Why most published research findings are false which I left on the table in the lab and which caused much comment from my colleagues.
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Old 26-Jun-2008, 08:16 PM (20:16)     3        21144
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Good stuff! Thanks! I have more to add to this overall (the recent huge growth in citation-twisting in the med research field, for example), and will add my new comments soonish; and I'm bloody grateful if you can add stuff from different directions and aspects too, as you have.
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Old 29-Jun-2008, 01:07 PM (13:07)     4        21187
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Medical research is just nuts. There has been a recent trend (or perhaps not so recent) of drug companies that sell SSRIs suppressing studies that show negative results about their drugs and only allowing positive ones to be published, which distorts the science and harms everyone in the long run. Science is ultimately self-correcting, but not before millions of people have been prescribed ineffective drugs.
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Old 29-Jun-2008, 11:48 PM (23:48)     5        21196
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Michael Polanyi's well-known The Tacit Dimension is along these same lines...
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