Jerome Ravetz on the sociology of science and keeping standards high.

“Fix the problem, not the blame.”[1]

Here’s a good way for you to start your week. Read a comment by Jerome Ravetz published in Nature and entitled Sociology of Science: Keeping Standards High. Ravetz is a distinguished scholar well known for his work on the philosophy of science in general and on science as a distinctly human endeavor. In his comment Ravetz notes that science has succeeded in part through insistence that results be subject to peer review, be published, and be replicable. He points out that social networking and wider public co-creation of new knowledge are exciting trends but run the risk of reducing standards. He highlights the special importance of trust in scientific endeavors, and hints that civility is a companion to that trust. [The comment is concise and worth a read in its entirety; you might also be interested in the comment string and in Judith Curry’s annotated version.

One challenge for scientists is the need for trust and civility to coexist alongside skepticism, which Ravetz also noted as a scientific value. Science makes progress in part because scientists take as their responsibility the rigorous examination and critique of every hypothesis and theory, every observation and experiment – exploring both their embodied implications and their flaws and limitations.

Others struggle with the same issue. Lawyers work to maintain decorum in the tooth-and-claw, adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom. Their challenge was once marvelously captured by the phrase, “After you, Dog-Breath!”[2]

Married couples and partners must master this as well. Where trust and love prevail, mistakes will be viewed as unintentional, and the couple will move on. Should trust and love decline, even honest mistakes can fray or sunder the marriage bond.

As Ravetz indicates, trust is key.

As this blog has repeatedly emphasized (see the January 6 post on error cascade and the links therein) peer review itself has limitations. These are becoming more obvious and problematic as science moves more toward center stage in human affairs and as the complexity and cost of science grow, and as scientific advance accelerates. It therefore may well be co-production of knowledge and trust offer not just a complement but an alternative. Imagine, for the moment, a world in which trust is universally merited and offered, and knowledge swiftly shared and acted upon. Attempts to build or make further progress on based on valid results would yield fruit. But efforts to build on logical error or incorrect data would quickly run aground. In a society where trust prevailed, everyone would quickly correct the problem, not fix any blame, and the world would move on. [Except for the trust bit, that’s rather like the real world of today.]

However, it’s easy to see why mistakes would erode trust.

That’s why I sneaked in an additional word above – love. We’re told “love covers a multitude of sins.” [Many people may not know the source of this phrase either, but its origin is known. We find it in 1 Peter 4:8 in the New Testament.]

But it turns out that Ravetz uses it as well. He ends his 1971 classic book, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, with this quote from another famous scientist and natural philosopher, Francis Bacon, in his work The Great Instauration, in 1620 (recall that charity was an Elizabethan term for love):

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

Love and trust? Tools every bit as essential for the scientist in the 21st century as they were in the 17th.



[1] This quote appears in various forms and is attributed to various sources.

[2] I thought this had been used in a book title, but googling the phrase just now has failed to provide a source.

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2 Responses to Jerome Ravetz on the sociology of science and keeping standards high.

  1. Jerome Ravetz says:

    Hello! I’m so pleased that you recalled that quote from Bacon. It was a milestone in my long march from Marxist materialism to acceptance of the power of ethics as realised in nonviolence. I had prepared myself for it in the book, by my analysis showing (rather to my surprise) that in the absence of an ethical commitment among leaders, science would degenerate. I had already experienced degenerate science in various places, so the analysis was relevant. I must now reply to a blog elsewhere, and the point I will make is that without trust (properly founded) then ‘peer review becomes pal review’. I have made a few attempts to promote the idea of non-violence in science, but up to now there has been little comprehension. Patience! All for now – JR.

  2. Pingback: Non-violent scientific discourse | Living on the Real World

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