Friday, April 14, 2017

Traditional ethics and standards of scholarship

The astrophysicist Simon White concluded his introduction (pdf) to the 2016 Ringberg workshop on galaxy formation by asking how one developed consensus about what is well established. (Thanks to Petri Mähönen for bringing it to my attention.)

White’s answer: “Re-emphasise traditional ethics and standards of scholarship.”

The five specific instructions he supplied apply to any field of inquiry, not just galaxy formation. Here they are, slightly edited (as indicated by square brackets) to remove the references to astrophysics:
De-emphasise marketing – the goal is not to sell our model to observers, funding agencies or employers, but to understand [the phenomenon being studied]
Be up-front, even-handed and explicit about limitations, assumptions and failures, in addition to exhibiting successes
Read and discuss related published work in detail – establish, as far as possible, the reasons why it agrees or disagrees with our results
Be sufficiently detailed and explicit about what was done in each paper that it is possible for others to understand if they agree or not
Do not stop after exhibiting agreement with (some) [evidence] – does this reflects calibration/tuning or an underlying [reality]?

These principles are clearly the fruit of many years’ experience, and careful thought. They could be applied to planning research, writing a paper, reviewing a paper, or seeking funding. The qualifier that these are traditional ethics and standards implies that White thinks they are no longer being observed in scholarship; cf. Phil Mirowski’s Science-Mart. O tempora! O mores!

I was reminded of DARPA’s “Heilmeier Catechism” and Dijkstra's "Address to my students" number EWD956 (I learned about both from Petri, too). Heilmeier how one decides what to do; Dijkstra is how one should do it; and White is how one describes what was done.

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