Science as a social not an individual game


Really lovely piece in London's Evening Standard today on the importance of science as a way of learning and understanding the world – prompted clearly by the extraordinary work done at CERN and elsewhere to discover the Higgs-Boson particle.

Couple of thoughts:

First, science isn't primarily an individual activity. Of course, individuals are involved (and those that get lucky get to have stuff named after them and have stories told about their heroic efforts).

Most scientific research is a team game in two or three really important ways: in experimental science most studies are carried out with other people and in analytic and theoretical science most papers are jointly authored.

Equally, scientific breakthroughs don't tend to come out of the blue – the product of crazed loners or isolated teams. Most modern scientists are part of a larger conversation – that's what e.g. journals and conferences are about. 

And of course, the point about the scientific method as opposed to other non-fiction research is that the measurement (and thus the findings) should be replicable by those other than the key authors (otherwise the findings are of little use). Or as Popper suggested, open to falsifiability.

Not forgetting Newton's famous "On the shoulders of giants" dictum: each generation's breakthrough work harnesses the work of many previous studies – often of people long dead.

All of which is curiously designed to stop the individual scientist or research team merely following the accounts of respected authorities (as ancient and medieval science was prone to) – another different social kind of thing.

So when the Standard sub-editor choose to stick the headline "The hunt for Higgs boson shows what our wonderful minds can achieve" don't be mislead: the author's not talking about neurononsense and what the individual human brain is capable of.

Rather he's referring to what our minds are capable of when they're harnessed together (albeit in very strict ways).

Nonetheless, like the man says.

"the bigger point is that it is the most effective way we have to answer some of the biggest questions of all. Science should be cherished for that alone. This great human endeavour has given us the most grand and compelling glimpse of the universe. Enjoy the view."