Purpose of SciteDaily
SciteDaily publishes articles written by scientists about their own research. These articles are targeted at a readership of educated lay people interested in science.
Our site is different from other popular science journals such as Popular Science or New Scientist in that the scientific content is not filtered or dumbed down by a lay reporter. The scientist knows the most about his own research, so why not allow him to explain it himself?
The first advantage is greater truthfulness and clarity in scientific reporting. The scientist is the foremost expert on his own research, so he can write about it most clearly and accurately.
The second advantage is a focus on real science rather than on sensationalist science. From the stories in popular science journals, one would think that all science is about global warming causing the end of civilization, drugs that cure human aging, or the development of laser shooting satellites. Real science is about targeted inquiries leading to incremental advancement: building a robot that can mimic facial expressions, studying which parts of the brain allow birds to learn songs, developing a medical device that allows a person to live without a heart for a few months while waiting for a transplant, and so forth.
By publishing accurate and clear writing on real science, we promote the public’s understanding of science.
As an introduction to our scientific content, we present three perspectives towards a full understanding of science: the role of science as a public good, the value of scientific literacy, and the biases of the modern scientific process.
Science as a Public Good
Science improves the lives of human beings.
The most mundane scientific advances, like the dishwasher, save us time and energy – allowing us to spend more time doing things we enjoy and spending time with our family. Other common technologies allow us to live comfortable lives by controlling our physical environment to suit our physiological needs. For example, indoor heating keeps us comfortable in winter.
Time, energy, and comfort are the most basic aspects of human life. By improving all of them, science gives us more resources to get the most out of our lives.
Science helps everyone, rich and poor and no matter what their ideology. A poor man drinking a beverage kept cold using refrigeration technology is enjoying the same benefits as a rich man in the same situation. Basic necessities like electricity, telecommunications, heating, and plumbing are available to serve everyone throughout the United States.
A caveat is that some of the more advanced technologies are available only to those who can pay for them. For example, advanced medical procedures are not available to people who do not purchase a good insurance plan. Only wealthy people can buy the most advanced computers. Also, in the developing world many people are lacking basic technologies like sanitation, eye glasses, and shoes. This does not diminish the value of science as a public good, but indicates that we should spend more time developing fair ways to distribute the benefits from science in addition to doing science itself.
Science allows us to understand the world.
In ancient times, the Greeks used philosophy to understand how the world worked. Their primary tool was logical deduction. For example, Plato sought to develop a definition of justice and happiness in “The Republic” by deductively reasoning from different definitions and seeing which ones led to contradictions.
The modern way of understanding the world is science. Scientists use both deduction and inference from empirical data to determine the rules that govern the universe. Physics can predict exactly how far a ball will travel when you throw it, for example. Equally well, it can predict the motion of the planets, as well as the interaction of molecules.
Unlike Plato, the way we would study justice nowadays would probably start with economics: if someone commits a crime, we would use cost-benefit analysis to determine what punishment would effectively deter that person or a similar person from committing the same crime. The punishment should cost the criminal more than the benefit he received from committing the crime. We might then use sociology to examine factors like poverty and lack of education that can statistically determine which populations are more likely to commit crime. This would lead us to effective regulation (e.g. anti-gang laws, stricter truancy laws) that prevents crime before it starts.
To examine happiness, we might use neuroscience to determine what areas of the brain show activity when people feel happy. Then, we might do psychological studies to determine what interventions can be used to make people feel happier. A large cross-sectional study could be performed to determine what real life factors correlate with a person reporting a higher degree of happiness on a survey. For example, studies have already shown that increasing wealth increases happiness to a certain degree, but once a certain level of wealth is reached, further increases of wealth no longer increase happiness.
In addition to the questions of “how” the world works, science gives us a new perspective on “why” questions such as “why are we here?” It is quite amazing for a human being to be able to contemplate the universe, which is 13 billion years old and 90 billion light years in diameter. Life itself is mysterious. How did the evolutionary process shape who we are today? Science allows us to look deeper into these ultimate questions. It does not have to replace other methods of “ultimate question” inquiry like religion and theology but can work in concert with them.
Modern Scientific Process
Science is a process performed by human beings, and as such, we must understand the process to understand its limitations.
Modern science is performed by people who have completed college and have generally done 5 – 7 years of graduate work in a Ph.D. program. The training of the Ph.D. program teaches them to become experts in a very narrow field of study. This allows them to push the field forward in their limited area. Scientific advancement comes from the efforts of millions of individual scientists each pushing forward in their little area.
The modern lab consists of several senior researchers, who may be termed professors if they are at a university or research scientists if they are in a corporate or government lab, as well as junior researchers who may be Ph.D. students or post-docs (people with a Ph.D. but are not sufficiently senior to be a professor or research scientist).
One of the major goals of research is publishing research papers so that other scientists can read them. The papers are highly technical and cannot be understood by people who are not experienced in the same field. Scientists do not make money from these papers but gain prestige, which is the primary measure of the scientist’s performance and which he needs to be promoted.
The emphasis on publication turns science into a highly competitive environment because everyone wants to publish the best ideas. People will only publish successful results and will not publish the results of failed experiments because it would not enhance their prestige. This causes multiple labs to repeat the same experiments because they don’t know other people have tried the same thing and failed. Furthermore, labs usually do not communicate with each other due to the desire to publish a good result first. Someone who publishes an idea second generally gets little to no credit. For better or for worse, science is a laissez faire marketplace: what science gets done often depends on where scientists perceive the prestige to be or where they think they can get a good result with little work.
What science gets done is also highly influenced by sources outside the scientific community. Researchers in a corporate or government lab are usually directed to work on projects that will benefit the organization. For example, Google hires many scientists to optimize their search engine. Their work makes Google search work better, but they are not allowed to publicly publish their ideas to benefit the rest of society because it would destroy Google’s competitive advantage. Likewise, government agencies direct their scientists to work on projects based on what the executives perceive to be their priorities.
Professors at universities are not given explicit directions on what to research but are still constrained in many ways. They need money to hire junior researchers and buy equipment. The university gives them little to no money for this purpose, so they must seek outside grants. Almost all these grants require the professor to agree to use the money for a specific purpose, for example to build a new type of computer memory. Practically, professors can only work on projects that someone with money will give them money to work on.
We do not seek to overly criticize the scientific process. We merely point out that science, as with everything else in life, is subject to the realities of market forces, money, and politics. This is important to remember as we consider why certain areas are studied and not others, or why we have certain scientific results and not others.
Science is a practical and exciting field. There is no reason for lay people to be intimidated or bored by science.
We believe that scientific articles written by scientists can be engaging and enriching. To that end please enjoy SciteDaily, the site for “Science from the Source.”