Daniel Lemire's blog

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True scientists are irreverent

Richard Hamming compared knowledge to compound interest: The more you know, the more you learn. Hence, progress tends to be exponential.

Some innovations increase our rate of progress slightly. The light bulb allows us to work late at night. Some accelerate progress tremendously. Science is one such innovation.

Alas, there isn’t a universally accepted definition of science. This does not stop us from doing science. Formal definitions are often less important than we think. For example, while most people could not formally define pornography, they can still produce and consume it. When people rent a porno they rarely discover that it is something else entirely. It looks like porno is a robust concept.

I am not convinced that science is so robust. Richard Feynman denounced cargo-cult science. Kevin Kelly reminds us that scientists often behave like politicians: inconvenient truths are buried whereas positive results are exaggerated.

There is clearly no widespread agreement on a formal definition of science. But it seems to me that the most important characteristic of science is that it puts truth ahead of social hierarchies: it does not matter how much anyone likes your theory nor who you are. It does not matter who your opponent is. What matters are the facts themselves. Accordingly, all great scientists are irreverent starting with Galileo Galilei himself.

____In this sense, science represented a remarkable weapon… not because it allowed us to understand thermodynamics or the atom, but because it allowed ideas to compete. Science is a free market of ideas. We saw recently that through a mix of government interventions and too-big-to-fail monopolies, financial markets can collapse and destroy wealth. A free market is a fragile ideal.

But we can measure freedom by looking at how irreverent the players are. How many times do scientist oppose the government and large corporations? How many times do scholars attack famous journals? That doctored results get published is not a concern, but you should be worried if you are thinking twice about denouncing them because the authors are famous.

How well are we doing? In Canada, the government is forbidding scientists from communicating their results. Obviously, some bureaucrats believe that freedom is unimportant in science.

Yet you don’t recognize scientists by their laboratory coats, research grants or prestigious publications. You recognize them by their irreverence. Perhaps we should train all new scientists in how to challenge authority.

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