Sunday, January 15, 2006

Science at the Frontier: Not Meant for the Textbooks, and that's OK

Nicholas Wade’s latest piece in the NY Times does a nice job distinguishing between “frontier science” and “textbook science”:
Textbook science is material that has stood the test of time and can be largely relied upon. It may include findings made just a few years ago, but which have been reasonably well confirmed by other laboratories.

Science from the frontiers of knowledge, on the other hand, is wild, untamed and often either wrong or irrelevant to future research. A few years after they are published, most scientific papers are never cited again.

In the post-Hwang cleanup there have been repeated calls to tighten the screws in the screening and review protocols at peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Science, where Hwang published his fraudulent results.
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But as Wade aptly points out, frontier science is distinct from textbook science for good reason: it is designed to push the envelope. Though the filtering is imperfect, “this rough screening serves a purpose. Tightening it up, in a vain attempt to produce instant textbook science, could retard the pace of scientific advance.”

It’s important to take appropriate steps to weed out fraudulent science from legitimate and honest scientific research. But that does not (and cannot) mean that every paper published in journals like Science or Nature will one day contain scientific truth within the meaning of “textbook science.”

Wade, a long time science reporter himself, argues that the media and the public, so eager to grasp hold of “the next big thing”, deserve some of the blame for what happened in South Korea, and share some of the responsibility for preventing it from happening again:
Tightening up the reviewing system may remove some faults but will not erase the inescapable gap between textbook science and frontier science. A more effective protection against being surprised by the likes of Dr. Hwang might be for journalists to recognize that journals like Science and Nature do not, and cannot, publish scientific truths. They publish roughly screened scientific claims, which may or may not turn out to be true.

What happened in South Korea is a black eye for scientific research, and in some respects it is tragic, but it is by no means fatal for scientific research at the frontiers of our knowledge.

Urging prudence is appropriate. Setting the initial threshold at the level of established textbook science would be imprudent in the extreme.

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