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Science is a collective enterprise: its models are cumulative, interconnected and coherent

January 23, 2012

The stereotypical lone scientist, beavering away in his laboratory, is  no longer with us.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science. See them all here.

In short…

Every scientific model is built up through the collaboration of the scientific community. Those models which survive do so because they fit into and consolidate the fabric of scientific knowledge.


If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Isaac Newton , British scientist, 1676

Fields of Science

In what sense is science collective, cumulative, interconnected and coherent?

Scientific knowledge results from the contributions of large numbers of scientists from all over the world. Science builds on previous knowledge. Although there are sometimes abrupt changes in paradigms, scientists are normally expected to show how new results fit into existing models. As a result, the network of scientific models forms a relatively (but not perfectly) unified picture of nature.

How the interconnectedness works.

Scientists need to be construct new models in such a way that they fit into the fabric of existing scientific knowledge. There are usually different teams working on the testing of any model, and they need to communicate their findings through conferences and reports.  Scientists are expected to publish the results of their research in scientific journals so that other scientists are informed and can give feedback. They need to cite previous research that is relevant to their study so that others can see how the work fits into the existing picture.

No single study should be viewed as the final word on any particular issue. Rather, it should be seen as a contribution to the discussion. Eventually, as a body of studies on a topic accumulates, the scientific community forms a consensus about the correct model. Some studies will have made significant contributions to the consensus, others only minor ones, and still others may have been totally wrong.

Occasionally, the links binding a model into the interconnected web of scientific knowledge begin to break down because new discoveries have weakened them. This is a sign that the model is in trouble. It may end up being replaced by a new model which meshes better.

Why interconnectedness is needed

An important principle in science is that models should be valid in all contexts in which they are relevant. This means that, irrespective of the scientific discipline, geographic location or culture they are used in,  the same models apply. In other words, science is consistent and integrated. There are no areas of science whose models clash violently with the models in other areas.

For example, biology uses the same atomic model as chemistry and the models that explain gravity at any place on earth also explain the gravitational interactions between galaxies.

Bogus science often relies on models which clash with those of real science, and in some cases, there are even internal inconsistencies within a branch of bogus science itself.

Examples

  • Newtonian mechanics was found to have limitations early in the 20th Century. It was replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which fits the real world better. But Newton’s model is a valid approximation when speeds are small compared to the speed of light.
  • The biological evolutionary model meshes with other models in biology (e.g. genetic models), chemistry (e.g. the structure of DNA) and geology (e.g. plate tectonics).
  • The plate tectonics model of the earth replaced earlier models, and explains many phenomena previously thought to be unrelated. Evidence for plate tectonics comes from a wide variety of sources and has built up a consistent overall picture.
  • Physicist James Trefil has composed a list of the interlocking ‘grand ideas‘ which scientists use to make sense of nature.
  • Homeopathy uses a model which proposes that the effect of a solution increases as it becomes more dilute. This model is not scientific because it is completely at odds with other models in chemistry and biology.
  • Acupuncture uses a model in which a type of ‘energy’ called qi flows in the body, helped by channels known as meridians. This model is not scientific because there is no real-world evidence for the existence of either qi or meridians and they do not fit with other biological models.
  • The intelligent design model for the origin of life cannot claim to be scientific because it does not fit with other scientific models, does not suggest any natural mechanism and has no research literature that provides supporting evidence.

Further reading

Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge at coelsblog.


Isaac Newton’s quote is from a letter to Robert Hooke.
The Fields of Science graphic is by Image Editor on Flickr.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science. See them all here.

This page reviewed: 2013/09/17

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