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Understanding science

How does science work — and how can we make it work better?

Science is humankind's greatest invention. It gives us superpowers. As a species we evolved the sensory capacity to deal with such a limited scope and scale of phenomena: sizes and distances ranging from a few micrometers to a few hundred kilometers, times and durations ranging from a few milliseconds to a few decades. Yet through the institution of science, we have been able to understand the molecular basis of life at the nanometer scale of DNA and the expansion of the universe at the scale of tens of billions of light-years. We've been able to understand the separation of the fundamental forces in the first picosecond after the big bang, and grand four-billion-year story of life's evolution on this planet.

“Yet science is not the inevitable One True Path to knowledge about the material world....If bees did science, I suspect it would look altogether different.”

Yet science is not the inevitable One True Path to knowledge about the material world. Rather, science operates via a set of norms and institutions jury-rigged to operate atop the evolved psychology of one particular species of ape. If bees did science, I suspect it would look altogether different.

In my research, I am interested in precisely how our norms and institutions shape scientific knowledge. While researchers may be driven by intrinsic curiosity, they are constrained by the realities of the scientific ecosystem in which they operate and motivated by the incentives — monetary and otherwise — with which they are confronted. What we know about the world is determined by what hypotheses scientists choose to test, what models they choose to compare, what parameters they choose to estimate, and other decisions they make about the trajectories of their investigations. We can diagram these dependencies as follows:

  1. Scientific institutions such as funding agencies, journals, scholarly societies and university departments interact with scientific norms such as citation practices, the priority rule for credit, and attitudes toward questionable research practices to create a suite of incentives for scientific researchers.
  2. Scientists are motivated by curiosity, prestige, financial reward, and a desire to continue working within the research community, and thus shape their research practices in accord with the incentives created by community norms and institutions.
  3. Through their research practices, scientists interrogate nature to generate a collection of knowledge – correct or otherwise – about how the natural world works.

As a result, the concordance between our knowledge of nature and its actual workings is shaped by our scientific norms and institutions. Those norms and institutions influence what questions we ask and do not ask, what hypotheses we test and do not test, what we learn and do not learn, what we believe correctly and what we believe incorrectly about the world.

While this observation may seem discouraging, it offers a huge opportunity. If the norms and institutions that constitute contemporary science emerged haphazardly over the past four centuries, we should have ample room to nudge the scientific ecosystem in directions better tailored to our contemporary research questions and technologies. While I find this work to be intellectually stimulating in and of itself, I firmly believe that its applications will allow us to make science function even better in the future.