Scientific Integrity at the Borderlands of Inquiry

by Jonathan Bartlett

Science moves forward not by enshrining, but by doubting and improving on, the consensus opinion. It moves because a scientist says, “Hmm…. that’s funny” or “I wonder if…” Whole avenues of knowledge have begun this way. Heliocentrism started because Copernicus wondered what it would look like to model the planets with the sun as the center. Throughout Copernicus’ lifetime his model of the planets was inferior to the models given by the geocentrists. However, what would astronomy be like today if Copernicus had yielded to his critics and abandoned his model because it didn’t work as well as the geocentrist view?

This question gets to the very heart of how scientific integrity works at the borderlands of scientific inquiry. New ideas should not be squelched, but neither should bad ones be perpetuated. Every offbeat idea should not be proclaimed as if it were the next Copernican revolution, nor should the fact that the greatest ideas in history often started by majorly rewriting what was thought to be scientifically true be ignored. It is a fact that scientific progress can start with data that appears to be at odds with the current understanding. Only later is it possible to reinterpret the old evidence to fit the new paradigm.

A good example is two major anomalies to do with Newton’s theory of gravity: the motions of Uranus and Mercury. Neither planet’s motions behaved exactly as they should under Newtonian mechanics. Was this a problem with Newton’s theory? Or were there missing factors? Both were true. In the case of Uranus, a suggestion was made that there might be an undiscovered planet affecting Uranus’ orbit. After careful calculations the planet Neptune was discovered. This led many to believe the same issue might affect Mercury’s orbit and another planet, Vulcan, was hypothesized. But, in this case, no other planet was found. Correct calculation of Mercury’s motion required Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Interestingly, there is no way to predict if the problem with a theory is that there are extra variables that need to be considered or if the theory itself requires revising or even reconsidering. So what is the scientist to do? Here is where integrity is most important. It is fine to hold on to a theory in the face of disconfirming evidence. If this were not the case, instead of finding Neptune, the theory of gravity would have been abandoned! However, to operate in integrity, a scientist must be open and honest about criticisms of both their own theories and even the theories on which their funding is built. They must be willing to offer the list of evidences that are, at least presently, anomalous to their ideas, being willing to concede the limitations of current knowledge. After all, it is difficult to know if the understanding of reality is wrong or if the data is being misunderstood.

As such, the key to integrity in science is truth. Truth in telling what you think, why you think it, what evidence confirms it, and which evidence disconfirms it. It is also important to accurately distinguish between data, interpretation of the data, extrapolation beyond the data, and speculation. When all these are laid on the table, science can proceed with minimum hindrance. Unfortunately, this is sometimes difficult since scientists can be effectively blinded by their own insights and ideas, the desire for professional recognition, and the need for funding. They may become unwilling or unable to see the possible problems with their work. On the other hand, it is possible to be so overtaken with new ideas that are none are followed to their potential ends. Therefore, in as much as it is possible, it would be beneficial for scientists neither to be slaves to their ideas, nor to the evidence as understood at the present moment.

AITSE’s goal is to provide the public with information so that they can assess scientific claims. We are grateful to our expert consortium of scientists who endeavor to do just this, being honest about the science: what it can say and what it cannot; what it does say and what it does not.

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