What Is Science?

I have had impeccable training along my path to become a PhD qualified exercise physiologist; the best of what the U.S. could offer at the time of my education in the late 1980's. Supposedly, some of this training was about how to be a scientist. Yet to be honest, such direct scientific training did not really exist. You see, PhD education is a poorly designed and regulated entity. It seems that the prevailing attitude is that if you are taught statistics and research design, along with the mainstream knowledge of your discipline area, and then given the opportunity to complete research, you learn about science. How misconstrued this all is. The reality is that a morally and ethically maligned mentor yields similarly maligned graduates, who then foster this mis-education about science to the next generation of "scientists". I have come to recognize these shortcomings in my tenure as a developing scientist over the last 30 years. My experience with editorial peer review is that most colleagues have no comprehension of the bigger pictures and realms of science that they function within.  I write about this in a separate topic.

So what is science in today's context? I will answer this question progressively in the context of today. The answer will end with another question, which is "What should science be?" I will then answer that question based on the backdrop I frame for my answer for what science currently is today.

When teaching or studying research design, explaining science is an important and fundamental beginning to the subject. Most textbooks provide a fleetingly superficial definition, based around the fact that science is a process that involves the use of knowledge, logic, rationalism and empiricism. This is all true.  The better books also raise attention to the attributes that function like pollutants to the process, where in science, the pollutant is bias. The manufacturers of bias are ego, status based on authority or power, and the inability to place the search for the truth as the driver of science. The latter occurs, of course, when ego controls the process. So many of my colleagues do this without even being aware of it. The best example of this is revealed in the goal of a career. Young scientists are brainwashed that they must specialize, for the true mark of their success is their international recognition for being an expert of a topic of inquiry. How ego driven this all is. It is even more disturbing to know that the platform of science in grant submissions, journals, professional organisations, and within academia has been supportive of this perspective.  Perhaps this is why our journal system is based on the historical British cast society, where ranking is everything. Prestige above the truth. Rejections rates above scientific impact. A journal impact factor that has no direct connection to impact at all! How maligned this all is to the true rigors of science.

So, back to the textbooks and the teaching of our students about what is science. While each of the ingredients mentioned in support of science are all important, with empiricism being the pinnacle trait, the learning is compromised as there is so much more to expound upon with all these issues. What are the temptations in academia that thwart the scientific method? What traits of editorial peer review thwart the process? What attributes of scientific journal publication thwart the process? And of course, the big question, that never seems to be raised, is "What would be the ideal environment for science to be truly pristine?"

Once again, let's start with where we are today.

Yes, science is a combination of logic, knowledge, observation, rationalism and empiricism. From this mix, important questions can be raised, experiments concocted, data obtained, statistics applied, and the results interpreted and explained.

But what of the drivers for the question? What is the intent of the question? Indeed, is the scientist aware that you cannot really prove much at all from one study, whereas you can disprove far more? (see a classic article by Katch about the burden of disproof). As such, true proof may only arise when you exhaust the disproving of all competing explanations. Clearly, all scientists need to read more of Popper and Kuhn, and of other philosophical options for the process of science. There are many books and internet resources than compare the two interpretations of these science philosophers.

So here is our first hick-up. If each new scientist is the product of his or her prior generation of knowledge and bias, then how can they see this bias? If internal and external reviewers, who may span multiple generations of prior knowledge and bias, assess a student's progress in the PhD program, then how is the process protected from infusing bias? If all of these problems exist, and the mentor of the PhD candidate knows the system, then there is temptation to milk the system to ensure a higher probability of success for the candidate. How does this reveal itself in the questions raised, the methods used, and the interpretations that follow? We ask the safe questions. We use established methods, even if polluted with bias, prior authority, and the acceptance of time and not empiricism. We stick with conventional interpretation. We do not challenge. And sadly, we function far from the ideals of science that sparked our imagination to be scientists in the first place. Our publications become rated by numerics and journal impact factors, rather than by the change our research invokes. Such change is the true impact.  This is what we should strive to accomplish.

But there are added layers of dysfunction that complete the tapestry of science today. There are added forces that bias our questions and the answers we deeply want to show. Within academia, our progress through promotion is dependent on research productivity. Such progress, as expressed above, is about research numerics and journal quality. Top journals risk the attraction of ego driven editors and reviewers. What systems do they have in place to protect against this? I am not aware of any for the major journals of my disciplines. How many peer scientists form and drive the opinions in peer review for a specific topic. Clearly, it is not many - perhaps just a couple. Consequently, it is easy to derail a specific topic from the true rigors of the scientific method.  All that is needed is to open the door to a few authoritative ego driven leaders and allow them to crank the engine. What a loss to progress.

Then of course, there is the influence of external grant money. This is huge in the university and research institute worlds of science. External research grant income drives university and institute economics, as well as status, which in turn influences future student enrollment, income, and so the cycle goes. But can all disciplines be funded equally by the government, or by industry, or by military, or by philanthropists? Clearly not. Can all topics be viewed with equal worth by a funding agency? Obviously not. There are topics of priority in the world of government and other external funding. My discipline, exercise physiology, is a classic example of a victim of the dollar fueled mercenary scientist. You see, there is very limited external grant income potential in pure exercise physiology. Where there is money is in the influence of exercise on disease, or ageing, or an astronaut's tolerance of micro-gravity, or the number of gold medals a country can a bring home from each Olympic Games. The result is the redirection of a wealth of exercise scientists away from their core identify (exercise science) to the world of research focused, framed and defined by the funding source. The loss is the research attention to what is exercise physiology; to the multi-systemic nature of exercise; to the methods used to acquire data of each system; to the unique interpretations of a multi-systemic entity that is exercise by scientists trained across these systems.  So, who is left to look after the discipline and research emphasis that is exercise physiology? No-one.  I fear the field is twisted and re-defined by physiologists outside of exercise science, who have an interest in exercise as a model to study their specialty field of physiology.  While such diversity can infuse needed vigor, it can also cause havoc.  There needs to be professional oversight and control of the discipline, but alas, there is none. Sports Medicine has taken control of exercise physiology in many countries, and where this has not happened, such as Australia due to a healthy and growing professional body of Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA), the organization refuses to recognize and act on the need to establish a professional directed journal structure to basic and clinical science exercise physiology. For exercise physiology, these short comings manifest themselves in editorial peer review, and of course, such dysfunction further constrains the discipline in peer reviewed publication, and the dysfunction cycles again into external grant funding.

I devote considerable attention to editorial peer review in another Topic.  So for now, let me pursue the pertinent issue for this Topic; that of the pursuit of science.  As I have argued, I interpret the current state of science to be far from the ideals upon which it should function.  There is too much bias, and there is too much indifference to the bias.  It is difficult to state which is worse.  What has to change, and what would be the traits of a healthy science? I my mind, I adhere to the process of science as described by Popper, and accept the realities of how science operates due to human frailty as defined by Kuhn.  I think there is no opposition in the Popper vs. Kuhn approaches.  Popper is the idealist and Kuhn is the realist.  If we are striving to improve the function of science, then we must strive to adhere to the burden of disproof as detailed by Popper. Kuhn's view of the eventual radical paradigm shifts are caused by the failures of science to operate as it should. Eventually the weight of logic and truth oppose the inertia of lazy indifference, or is it ego driven protection?

How Should Science Function?

Surely science, as defined as a systematic process directed to reveal the truth from which knowledge can be gained, is more important than any other aspect of the larger canvas in which it operates.  This larger landscape consists of the other intervening attributes (sources of bias) I raised earlier; academia, industrial scientific institutions; commercial publication outlets, editorial peer-review, human desires to fuel ego, power and greed, and with added components being patents and intellectual property.  Given that we know of the potential for bias in science, and have known this for decades, then surely it is wise to envision a system for self regulation.  After-all, we have checks and balances in our political and legal systems, and we require transparent processes in the use of tax dollars.  Shouldn't we have a system of checks and balances in science?  Who keeps our journals honest? Who has authority over editors and peer reviewers, and can take action against wrong doing? Is it wise or ethical, to allow commercial publishers to control the process and access to the majority of scientific publication? Can science function optimally when mixed with capitalism?

I am bothered by all of these questions, and I am sure there are more disturbing questions to ask. Regardless, it is clear to me that science currently operates on a dysfunctional model and change is desperately needed.  Here is what I propose.

1. We need a Global Authority of Science.  Of course, it doesn't have to be this name, but we need a global entity, similar to the World Health Organization, that oversees all aspects of science in the world.  This authority needs to bring together scientists to establish a due process that best nurtures science. While there are many traits that this authority may develop, I foresee that the following items are essential - consistency in editorial peer review; investigation of accusations of biased editorial peer review; authority to remove a journal from circulation due to violations to scientific ethics; authority to ban specific scientists from participating in editorial peer review, regulation of the systems of information dissemination (e.g. journals); etc.

2. We need to improve the training of our future PhD graduates. As previously explained, our current system of PhD education and training is far too ad-hoc. There needs to be an infusion of the need to critically challenge in how we train our future academics and scientists. Perhaps a PhD thesis requires evidence to support a new theory or oppose an existing theory, or both. Yes, this will be taxing on the need for quality supervision, but then again, maybe we need to produce fewer PhDs so that hose that we produce adhere to higher standards of education, ethics, and scientific performance.

3. Scholarly publication must once again be directed back to a not-for-profit model.  I am trying to do that with the journal Scientiae et Veritus. Others need to join this revolution and change the function of the gates to information dissemination. We can do this, for we, as scientists, are the fuel, the engine, and the creativity for a better tomorrow.

4. We need a process that is more valid in rating the impact of a manuscript. Impact shouldn't have to be about what journal it is published in.  Impact is about how the manuscript is cited and how it invokes change.

5. We need to improve the quality and capacity of editorial peer review. Perhaps a part of the global authority is to develop a scientific oath. Part of the oath must obviously be to prevent bias, be ethical, and strive to challenge convention.  Another part could be the need to commit to contributing to peer review. This is why I like the professional organization model of journal development. Now, I do not mean like it is today, where a professional organization mostly signs off all aspects of journal operation and function to a commercial publisher. I mean a system where the organization commits to owning the journal, and requires members to adhere to a strict conduct of ethics and professionalism in the operation of the journal. Such organizations could feed their function into the state, then national, and then international domains of the global authority.

If science represents the future of humanity, then surely, all this revolutionary improvement is essential!