True scientists are irreverent

Richard Hamming compared knowledge to compound interest: The more you know, the more you learn. Hence, progress tends to be exponential.

Some innovations increase our rate of progress slightly. The light bulb allows us to work late at night. Some accelerate progress tremendously. Science is one such innovation.

Alas, there isn’t a universally accepted definition of science. This does not stop us from doing science. Formal definitions are often less important than we think. For example, while most people could not formally define pornography, they can still produce and consume it. When people rent a porno they rarely discover that it is something else entirely. It looks like porno is a robust concept.

I am not convinced that science is so robust. Richard Feynman denounced cargo-cult science. Kevin Kelly reminds us that scientists often behave like politicians: inconvenient truths are buried whereas positive results are exaggerated.

There is clearly no widespread agreement on a formal definition of science. But it seems to me that the most important characteristic of science is that it puts truth ahead of social hierarchies: it does not matter how much anyone likes your theory nor who you are. It does not matter who your opponent is.  What matters are the facts themselves. Accordingly, all great scientists are irreverent starting with Galileo Galilei himself.

In this sense, science represented a remarkable weapon… not because it allowed us to understand thermodynamics or the atom, but because it allowed ideas to compete. Science is a free market of ideas. We saw recently that through a mix of government interventions and too-big-to-fail monopolies, financial markets can collapse and destroy wealth. A free market is a fragile ideal.

But we can measure freedom by looking at how irreverent the players are. How many times do scientist oppose the government and large corporations? How many times do scholars attack famous journals? That doctored results get published is not a concern, but you should be worried if you are thinking twice about denouncing them because the authors are famous.

How well are we doing? In Canada, the government is forbidding scientists from communicating their results. Obviously, some bureaucrats believe that freedom is unimportant in science.

Yet you don’t recognize scientists by their laboratory coats, research grants or prestigious publications. You recognize them by their irreverence. Perhaps we should train all new scientists in how to challenge authority.

Appendix: Various informal definitions of Science

Reason over sentiments

Venkatesh Rao – Science is the tendency to look at reality in unsentimental ways, and gradually increasing your intellectual capacity for being unsentimental through disciplined practice.

Greg Linden -   Adam Smith: “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”/ Experiments, data, and debate.

Holger Dell– Science is a process that makes our beliefs converge to reality.

Science is self-discovery

Suvi-Tuuli Allan – Science is when you really want to know something, but without asking anyone else, you actually get your hands dirty and find out for yourself, (…)

Dervis Cakmakkaya – curiosity and the joy of learning

Science is a method

Nicolas Bonneel – The scientific method is rather measurements -> model -> predictions -> validation of those predictions…

Joe Cochran – Science is following the scientific method in an experimental setting.

Sonny Williamson – The method by which we can empirically determine the facts about nature.

Nick Hanna – To me, science is the knowledge and experience that results from using the scientific method (hypothesis -> measurement/experiment -> conclusion).

Rodrigo Benenson – Science is a methodology to increase humanity’s knowledge through time.

We live in a consistent world

Daniel Lowd – Science is an attempt to understand the universe by assuming that it behaves in a consistent and predictable manner.

Study of nature

Suresh Venkatasubramanian – The study of nature and its processes

Science is falsifiable

Harpreet Dhaliwal – Learning how things work by constantly seeing if you’ve got it wrong — Seeing if you’ve got it right tends to let you fool yourself. A claim that can never be wrong is not a scientific claim. No need for these other answers

Science is founded on measures

Alan Berman – The seeking of Truth via measurable means. We may never know the absolute Truth, but we can be always working towards it.

Drew Sowersby – Science is the survival of data acquired from experimental tests.

Science is social

Artem Kaznatcheev – science is the social process by which curious minds explore progressively better descriptions of the world around them

Science can be a spiritual pursuit

Leon Palafox – Science is the best shot we have at acquiring real transcendence in a Universe were we are nothing but a speck of blue dust.

Vijay Kumar – Science: The answer to all the questions

Science is doubt

Peter Turney – Science is trust in experience — observation and experimentation — instead of trust in authority — scripture and official doctrine.

Seb Paquet– Feynman: science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Daniel Lemire, "True scientists are irreverent," in Daniel Lemire's blog, October 17, 2011.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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