D.Gile, December 8, 2004
Our knowledge about the world is partly experiential, i.e. obtained through direct sensory experience (what we see, what we hear, what we smell, etc.) and ulterior cognitive processing (the brain has to make sense of the sensory experience), and partly inherited, i.e. received from other people’s statements, written or spoken (what we read and what we hear). Our perception of both ‘reality’ around us and other people’s statements is distorted and limited by our sensory and cognitive limitations (we cannot see or hear everything, and there are limitations to the amount of information we can process), and by affective bias (essentially our likes and dislikes, personal ambitions, self-image etc.).
These limitations have been recognized from early times on. The so-called scientific method1 presented in many textbooks on research methods is a set of norms underlying research methods and rules for research criticism designed to push back such limitations to the best possible extent. These norms include the following:
- Science is systematic: it looks at its object of study systematically, ideally leaving no stone unturned.
- Science is careful: it checks the evidence which is collected as well as the rationale followed, it systematically tests theories, and it avoids drawing conclusions and making claims when one or the other have weaknesses.
- Science is logical: the basis of its rationale in every study is Cartesian logic.
- Science aspires to be objective: it recognizes that personal bias is in the way of every scientist’s attempts to explore the world, and therefore tries to reduce such personal bias or eliminate it whenever possible, partly through awareness-raising, and partly through procedures.
- Science is critical: criticism is one way for members of the scientific community to help each other, as it is often easier to see the flaws and make constructive suggestions to correct them in another researcher’s work than in one’s own.
- Science is collective: every scientist draws upon the work of other members of the community in terms of evidence, theories and methods, and every scientist contributes to the community by offering his/her own input on evidence, theories and methods.
- Science is communicative: in order for the collective building of science to occur, scientists communicate the results of their work in both oral papers and publications.
- Science is explicit: when communication his/her input to other members of the community, a scientist reports his work explicitly, so that they can understand what s/he has done and build upon it and/or help him/her by criticizing it. In particular, s/he backs up assertions with explicit evidence, be it in the form of data or in the form of references to findings by other scientists.
The quality of scientific progress as a whole depends to a large extent on the individual scientists’ compliance with these norms.
: This text introduces norms of science as it is defined by the so-called scientific method generally invoked in empirical disciplines, both natural and behavioural. I do not claim that these norms are universal, that science cannot be defined otherwise, or that research not in line with them is “unscientific” in any absolute sense of the word.