Ethics in Science

Henry H. Bauer

Puzzle and Filter Model

There's another model of how science gets done that I think is useful. It was suggested by Michael Polanyi, a chemist who turned philosopher of science (and whose son John won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry not so long ago). Polanyi asked, how can people best work together to produce good science as efficiently as possible? And he thought of other cooperative activities. Let's say you have a wagon-load of potatoes to peel and lots of people to help: you give each of them a pile of potatoes and ask them to peel them. But science wouldn't progress efficiently if every scientist were trying to do the same thing at the same time; it works best when scientists specialize and also critique one another. In any given study, people get ideas at different times, they get different ideas, they have different experimental skills - how to arrange it so that whenever a particular idea or experiment is called for, the best qualified person knows that it's time to step in?

Only by ensuring that everyone knows what everyone else is doing, by having open and honest publication. Polanyi made the nice comparison that the sort of cooperation you want in doing science is the same as when a group of people are jointly working a jigsaw puzzle: everyone does what they can do best, everyone works at their own pace, and since everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and what the present state of the puzzle is, everyone is able to step in at the right place at the right time.

So my first main point is that to understand science, its history and development, its contemporary state, what it can do in the future, what role it can and does play in society - you need to think of it not as individuals practicing "the scientific method" but as people working at a jigsaw puzzle and filtering knowledge. There are lots of things about science that you can understand through the puzzle-&-filter model that you can't understand in terms of a "scientific method" (Table 1):

So why has the myth persisted, that science is what it is because of the scientific method? There are a number of reasons:

  1. Practicing scientists don't much care about explaining why science works, they're interested in doing it. They're happy to let the philosophers and sociologists worry about philosophy and sociology.
  2. Philosophers and sociologists don't pay much attention to scientists; and they don't know much about the actual practice of science. What they understand is abstract methodology, and theory, and theory about method.
  3. The only claim that sociology, political science, and psychology have to being scientific is that they use the scientific method. Those fields haven't accumulated reliably applicable, predictably useful knowledge.
  4. Some people argued that if science doesn't use the scientific method, if it's "just" a human activity, then there's nothing especially rational or reliable about it.
  5. And we don't like to give up the possibility of being quite certain about things. About a century ago, we discarded religion as the revelation of truth because science seemed to explain a lot of things better; if we now give up the certainty of science, what's left? - at least for Marxists or secular humanists?
At any rate, it's still a firmly entrenched belief that science works by the scientific method; which is objective, self-correcting, impersonal. That's why, when the public fuss about misconduct in science really got going 5 or 10 years ago, most scientists dismissed it as making mountains out of mole-hills. So what if a few silly people think they can cheat in science and get away with it? We know that they can't.
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Version: 1.0, text updated: 5/12/1995
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Henry H. Bauer
Professor of Chemistry & Science Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0227, (540) 951-2107,