Sunday, August 23, 2009

When scientists disagree

This was posted over at Real Climate under the title, Resolving Technical Issues in Science.

One of the strengths of science is its capacity to resolve controversies by generally accepted procedures and standards. Many scientific questions (especially more technical ones) are not matters of opinion but have a correct answer.

Scientists document their procedures and findings in the peer-reviewed literature in such a way that they can be double-checked and challenged by others. The proper way to challenge results is, of course, also through the peer-reviewed literature, so that the challenge follows the same standards of documentation as did the original finding.

Such a challenge can either be in form of a new, independent paper, or in the form of a comment to a published paper. The latter is the appropriate avenue if the challenge is not based on new data (and is thus a piece of research in its own right), but is a criticism of the methods used in a paper.
There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism, and pointing out errors — even fairly minor ones — is important and useful. The difference, though, between people who want to find out something about the real world and people who just want to score political points, is what is made of those errors. That is the test of constructive scientific dialog. Specious accusations of fraud, plagiarism and the like don’t pass such a test; instead they simply poison the atmosphere to everyone’s loss.

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