Individual Bias – Who cares? It’s Science.Posted: June 2, 2012
Let me begin by acknowledging that the scientific process is far from perfect. It often heads off in wrong directions for extended periods, operates in fits and starts and isn’t cheap. Yet, science is to the discovery of knowledge what democracy is to the governance of society (Churchill’s dictum: the worst form, except for all the others that have been tried). Presumably, the “biases” Freek and Steve are talking about have been with us since Galileo. Yet, science advances all the same.
I put the word “biases” in scare quotes because I’m wondering how one would distinguish the scenario Freek identifies from one containing objective researchers with strong priors. Objective researchers are allowed to have strong priors, especially those who are experts in a field.
Still, suppose we stipulate that researchers’ emotions or preferences often lead them to hold dogmatic beliefs with respect to some favored, yet false, views (i.e., they completely ignore new, contradictory information). If the following conditions hold, then a field that follows the scientific method will eventually discard the false views: 1) not everyone in the field believes the false view; and, 2) it is possible to collect facts that refute the false views.
The reason for this is that scientific institutions provide enormous incentives to the “young Turks” of a field to overturn conventional wisdom. It’s true that there is also strong pressure on young scientists to conform to the CW. And one may well be able to enjoy a quiet career as a scientist by going whichever way the wind blows. But, you’ll never get famous that way. The history of science is loaded with examples of now famous scientists who are famous exactly because they broke with the CW.
Nor do I agree with Steve that some form of external refereeing is necessary for the system to work. True, it might take a generation for the up-and-comers to pry the CW from the cold, dead fingers of their senior colleagues but, eventually, that does happen. No external audience is required.
The problem with strategy (and most areas of social science) is that many of the objects in our theories are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. When this is true, the scientific process breaks down because item (2) above does not come in to play. So, for example, we have a theory known as “Porter’s 5 Forces” being taught without refinement from its original form for over 30 years. Indeed, in strategy, scholars are able to stake out a wide variety of sloppily constructed, ambiguous, and logically suspect theories for extended periods precisely because the lack of key data make them impossible to refute.