Science and the social covenant

Charlie Martin has his take at Pajamas Media about Climategate: Violating the Social Contract of Science. It stimulated some very good comments,

“4. truepeers” on the nature of covenants and their necessity for an orderly society:

As you suggest, the belief in social contracts, or covenants, is for science and other aspects of a free society, an under-appreciated (too many scientists prefer to think of their work in the heroic terms of breaking down social orthodoxies, as in the popular understanding of Galileo) but necessary pre-condition. In thinking about what kind of shared understanding is necessary to freedom, we can appreciate that a free society can’t try to spell everything out in advance. In building a “social contract”, unlike say a business or legal contract, building shared faith or trust is really the problem and you can’t specify in advance all the foreseeable contingencies that might be involved in getting the job done. Rather, like the US Constitution, you are best to consider only basic terms or conditions for building shared faith in a common system of government, for allowing a free market to emerge, the minimal conditions for people to engage each other in discovering and constructing their shared reality and then discovering what they really believe and will contract as they engage in more specific agreements.

“26. Jim Ryan” regarding those who assert that trust is invalid in science and there is no covenant:

There’s an element of trust. In journal articles the experimental procedure is described if anyone wishes to repeat the experiment. Sometimes skeptics will repeat the experiment. Scientists know they have a chance of being exposed if they decide to be sloppy or dishonest. “I did this…. I observed this….” suffices on trust to a large extent. There isn’t time to repeat all published experiments if you want science to move at the pace you have it moving.

There are probably life-saving drugs used today which are based on a stack of journal articles some of which have data and experiments, say about one of the molecules used in the drug, that were not repeated by skeptics but simply trusted. I did experiments in a lab for a well-respected chemist. They took months and stood on the shoulders of others in the lab who had taken years. I’m sure some of these experiments were trusted by the chemist’s colleagues. There simply isn’t time to send a guy off in a competing lab for six months to repeat some experiment.

It doesn’t make for a pack of lies. It makes for a house of cards. Sometimes houses of cards stand up. Sometimes the house is tall enough for you to step of the top and onto the surface of the moon; at other times some idiot screwed up the units, nobody checked, and your Mars lander crashes. If there was an error or a lie in the stack of experiments, then down the road the house of cards starts to fall. Investigators trace the problem back to the fault. Global warming turned out to be bogus over the last ten years. Somebody decided to snoop for no-goodniks and found them at CRU.

Science requires trust unless its moving at a snail’s pace is satisfactory to you. Scientists will lie. They’ll get found out when the lies interact with the world down the road. The lies impede the pace of science. But verifying every experiment would impede it more.

There has been, since Sputnick, concern about education in math and science. Perhaps the best education to be obtained is the one that is to be gained from involvement in this discussion.

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