17 October 2008

Science is collaborative

I wouldn't have thought it so, but apparently it is a surprise to some (many, actually I've seen quite a few such comments before) that science is a collaborative activity.

Quoting the scientist:

I am speaking for myself… Thanks to Stephanie Renfrow, Ted Scambos, Mark Serreze, and Oliver Frauenfeld of NSIDC for their input.

The blog commentator responds:

The result of this “groupspeak” is unconvincing to this reader. It would have been nice to hear the real thoughts of one real man.

Real scientists know that they are not omniscient. Even within your professional area, you know that you don't know everything. So, if you're contacted by some group with 'a few questions' and have a chance to do so, you run the questions and your answers past some other knowledgeable people. This is lower level stuff than hard core 'peer review', but some basic check that you weren't too focused on your own sub-sub-sub-niche at the expense of other relevant parts of the situation, and that you didn't have a thinko/typo in your answer.

There's nothing terribly special about scientists in this. Science or not, most people know they're not omniscient. I'm pretty sure that the Cubs first time in the post season since 1945 was 1984. And the next time after that was 1989. But if I were to be answering in a situation (as the above scientist was) loaded with people who think that I'm a liar before I answer, and that people in my profession are participating in some grand conspiracy, or that international decisions would depend on my answer, I'm going to do some checking with references and other Cubs fans about whether it was 1984 and 1989 or some other years. Those are probably the right years, and in a casual chat between you and me, I'd go with them. But if it mattered, time for research and checking with other knowledgeable people.

Yet, come to climate -- a big hairy mess of a system that no one person can hope to understand all of in detail -- and responses like the above are common. Somehow an individual scientist is supposed to become omniscient and not rely on checking out his answers with others. Yet any honest person as a matter of routine does so even in far less public and far less socially important situations.


Kim said...

I've actually changed my grading/plagiarism policy to try to get students to see that science in collaborative. When there's any kind of homework or lab assignment, I encourage them to talk to one another, but I tell them to list acknowledgements somewhere on their paper/lab/assignment, thanking anyone who helped them. I'm not sure that the point gets across - the students might think it's a license to get people to think for them. (The upper-level students generally understand that isn't the case, but the intro students are the ones that I would like to understand the nature of science better.)

Penguindreams said...

I particularly likes your idea on glossary as a collaborative idea (you're the kim who does All my faults are stress-related right?

I should have mentioned the recent Nature article on collaboration in science. Among other things, they note that only something like 7 of about 700 papers they published in the last year were single author. Working with other people is vital. And you won't keep working with other people for long if you don't credit their work properly.