Science ≠ Community

communityI enjoy Andrew Gelman’s blog; it’s a great place if you have heard too many false and flashy “research has shown” and “science tells us” statements and want to know (a) where such research goes wrong and (b) why these errors don’t get attention. The blog attracts readers and commenters from many fields and perspectives; some of the comments could be pieces on their own.

Recently there was an enlightening post followed by lively discussion of Susan Fiske’s call for an end to the reign of “destructo-critics” and “self-employed data police” in social media—that is, those who employ “methodological terrorism” in criticizing others’ research. She doesn’t name names or give any concrete examples, so it isn’t clear who the “destructo-critics” are. She does suggest, though, that the legitimate channels for criticism are peer review or “curated” discussion. That is, she opposes not just nasty tweets, vicious personal attacks, and so forth, but (possibly) any unsanctioned critical commentary on research. In her conclusion, she says, “Ultimately, science is a community,  and we are all in it together.”

A community, eh? That rings a bell….

A commenter (“Plucky”) seized this sentence this and gave it a good shaking:

The key problem with Fiske is this sentence: “Ultimately, Science is a community, and we are all in it together.”

That is just flat-out wrong, and wrong in the ways that result in all that you have criticized. Science is not a community, it is a method.

That’s just the beginning; “Plucky” goes on to explain the dangers of the “community” metaphor. I recommend reading the whole comment. Here’s another choice quote:

My main criticism of this post is the stages of the metaphor—you’re nowhere near six feet of water in Evangeline. If Science devolves into merely a community, then it’s just another political interest group which will be treated as such.

I then remembered the many times I had heard the phrase “the consensus of the scientific community,” along with references to Thomas Kuhn, who supposedly coined it. Kuhn actually said, “What better criterion could there be … than the decision of the scientific group?” He explained what he meant by this, but I consider the statement problematic at best, even in context.

Kuhn aside, I use the word “community” sparingly and cautiously. Many entities that call themselves communities are not communities or should not be. As “Plucky” notes, “communities do not generally value the truth over their members’ well-being.” They exist to support their members.

In fact, someone who wishes to challenge a prevailing idea must often speak independently, without waiting for “community” approval. Dana Carney has just done this in relation to “power poses.” (This is big news, by the way.)

I do not disparage communities overall. Communities of various kinds have a place in the world, and I belong to a few. Still, even the best communities can ask themselves, “To what extent is this a community, and whom do we leave out?” and “What goals does this community not serve, and where does it even counter them?” The point is not to make the community all-encompassing but rather to recognize its limitations.

When it comes to science, I’ll take an open forum over a community any day.

 

Note: I added the paragraph about Carney after posting this piece.
Update: Writing for
Science of Us (New York Magazine), Jesse Singal reported this morning on Carney’s statement and explanation.

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