The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

The Science of Science

“Metacognition” is a word that basically means, thinking about thinking.  You take part in metacognition when you actively try and spot patterns in your own behavior that are acting against your goals, and then trying to create solutions that work around these problems.  It’s self reflection, but also action that takes place due to that reflection.  It might be uniquely human.

There is an analogue in society, though, when any sort of social movement begins to use it’s own doctrine to look back on itself.  This is generally restricted, though, and does not include  self reflective studies using other means, for example, a political movement using scientific evidence to rethink its position on things.  I’d suppose we could call that ‘iterative’ progress.  But instead, its when you turn a social movement with an intrinsic ability for self reflection back on itself.  Say, let’s psychoanalyze Freud, for example.  Or, more importantly, let’s apply the scientific method to science itself.

In science, let’s say medical science, we have a hypothesis that X causes B.  Now, medical science is one of a few ‘special’ branches of science who are motivated by more than just the search for truth itself.  Generally, if X causes B, B is a bad thing and we want to stop it.  Knowing that X causes it means that we can have more control over B and reduce suffering.  So when we do medical science, we more or less want to do it as ‘best’ we can, to get to the bottom of various diseases and halt human suffering.

So we hypothesize that the current way we do medical science is the best, i.e., that it yields the most truth and that these truths are the most effective to reduce human suffering.  If, through that hypothesis, a researcher were to be able to find a pattern in medical science itself that yielded weakening evidence, that researcher would be doing science on science itself.

But like medical science, who’s treatments and drugs improve (by some small degree) by every paper published, does science not itself recursively improve through it’s own self analysis?  By applying the results of science and mathematics, in the case of the above link, network theory, to the processes that produced those results, science becomes STRONGER due to it.  The scientific method as we know it from the enlightenment is a sound way to find truth about our world, we must always remember that the evidence we produce from any one experiment is only as good as the assumptions that went into it.  And there are many assumptions in the scientific method itself, of which, we learn about more only through self reflection.

Medical science, not to pick on it, is rife with these enlightening moments.  From discovering that taking a sugar pill makes people feel better (the Placebo effect), to realizing that people who follow doctor’s orders tend to be healthier than those who don’t, even if those doctor’s orders are non-sensical.  We have invented the double blind placebo controlled trial to control for the scientists’ own bias as well as human’s predilection for sugar pills.  We’ve invented meta-analysis to momentarily reflect on our own science to try and combine and better glean results from a group of studies.  We’ve invented the idea of conflict of interest, the open access journal as well as many other tools and techniques that were the result of turning the scientific method back on itself.

You can see the result of this recursive growth in transistors.  We’ve built computers, and then only months later, used those very computers to design the next generation.  This same recursive growth is possible in science too – the very results mentioned above shows that we CAN do science better.  Lives are at stake in many cases, and if not lives, then large sums of money.  We can only do so much good science, produce so many real results, in a year for a given dollar.  We should focus on making these dollars go as far as possible by applying the results of (and funding more of) these sorts of self reflective studies.  The more bias we remove from our scientific process, the cheaper science gets for any dollar put in.  The cheaper it gets, the more we can do.  The more we can do, the more we learn.  The more we learn, the more lives we save and the more wealth we create.

And the cycle continues towards singularity.  Kurzweil is right, but he never mentions culture.  Culture, and the products of human culture, are also capable of exponential growth, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near an inflection point.

August 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment