Monday, November 11, 2013

On the quality of research, or - are we doing any science?

On November 1, 2013, I spent half a day at the 5th Portuguese Conference on Polar Sciences, at the Algarve University in Faro. I was doing a social sciences experiment, making observations relevant to two science-related issues:


1. Do researchers know what science is?

I asked two of the researchers who were making their reports the following question: Taking into account that any progress of science is only possible if we formulate and question hypotheses, seeking experimental evidence allowing to reject some of these hypotheses, what were the hypotheses you have formulated, and how have your experimental evidence helped to reject some of them?

One of the presenters had no idea whatsoever what I was talking about. The other tried to excuse himself, saying that "we should not be so fundamentalist about this". Well, either we are doing science, or we are doing fact-finding or statistics (rather useless and wasteful, without a hypothesis that would define what to look for) - it is nice to be able to take photos of poorly accessible places, and do it on public money, but this is not what science is. His co-author, however, stated that they were discussing hypotheses in their poster - which I could not confirm; indeed, they were discussing issues related with human perception and theory of knowledge and learning, but I could not find any evidence of them trying to falsify some hypothesis that they have formulated.

One more researcher had a hypothesis formulated in a previous publication by a different group - and then was looking for evidence that conformed to this hypothesis. She went to the same place and collected some different species - which did behave in a similar way in similar conditions. So what? Was she looking for anything new, contradicting to her original hypothesis? Well, she was not. She does not understand what science is.

Still another (senior) researcher did have some hypotheses formulated in his slides, and mentioned it in the beginning of his talk, alerted by my questions to his colleagues. However, he mentioned no attempts to falsify any of these hypotheses - once more, they were searching for conforming evidence - and wasting public funding. In fact, no hypothesis may be definitely and unquestionably proven; those who think otherwise commit a logical error - and there is no sin in science worse than that. If your logic fails, how can you aspire to be a scientist?

There were more presentations, discussing new financing opportunities and collaborations that would lead to more public spending, but not science ...

2. Are scientific conferences discussing science?

Well, this one has not.

Firstly, there was not much of science to discuss - what was presented, apart from nice photos from Arctic or Antarctic, was some research, either without an idea (without a specific working hypothesis), or attempting to confirm an idea (a hypothesis). As already noted, no progress of science is possible in either of the two cases.

Secondly, there were no questions asked about science by the audience - apart from mine. However, I was not given an opportunity to question every presenter - the usual excuse was that they are behind the schedule, and have time for only one question - which was given to someone else. On at least one occasion, the lady who was presiding the session abused of her powers and asked the (only allowed) question herself, instead of giving an opportunity to the audience. The questions asked by other participants were very few, and usually touched either on minor details of the experimental procedures, or on the future plans of the respective research group ...

Obviously, the conference was supported by the taxpayer money, same as the rest of the "research effort".