Saturday, July 30, 2011

The quality of scientific knowledge (and engineering knowledge)

Sir Paul Nurse on the Charlie Rose show

Nobel Prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse says that there are three key aspects of science that result in the high quality of scientific knowledge:
  1. Scientists seek to incorporate huge amounts of experience in their theories.
  2. Scientists are skeptical.
  3. Scientists work as a community, so that when a consensus emerges from the debates among a large number of skeptical scientist it is likely to be especially trustworthy.
People too often reject negative information. Science is built on the idea that all hypotheses should be refutable, and indeed that experiments must be made and replicated in an effort to refute hypotheses. Indeed, the greatest kudos go to scientists who successfully challenge the most widely accepted “common knowledge”. Think about Darwin and his challenge to the Great Chain of Being, Newton and his challenge to the rejection of action at a distance, or Einstein and his challenge to Newtonian physics.

Scientists ideally attribute only a limited credence to the best established scientific facts and very actively seek to challenge new experimental findings by replicating experiments and observations; they also actively seek to challenge the interpretation of observations.

When a theory has been tested by the generation of very many hypotheses generated from the theory, each of which has survived many replications of experimental observations intended to falsify the hypothesis, and each of which has survived scientific challenges of the interpretation of theory into hypothesis and hypothesis into observation, then that theory gains credence.

On the other hand, engineering knowledge gains credence when the bridge stands for a century carrying heavy traffic, or when a chemical processing plant has produced ton after ton of product safely and efficiently for a decade or two. Engineering knowledge is codified in codes of practice, both legal and professional, in standards, in formal training programs, and in long processes of apprenticeship for the transfer of tacit knowledge, 

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