3 Perspectives on contemporary science
Contemporary, ‘up-to-date’ knowledge can be compared to science that is ‘agreed’ knowledge – for example, something you might read in a textbook or a popular science book (Latour, 1987). How, then, do scientists make sense of the difference between new and agreed knowledge? And what are the characteristics that make an effective scientist? Complete the next activity to find out more.
Activity 3 Perspectives on contemporary science and scientists
Study the following audio interviews, featuring Open University scientists, Clare Warren (Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences), Martin Bootman (Reader in Biomedicine), Claire Turner (Professor of Analytical Science) and Phil Wheeler (Senior Lecturer in Ecology). Each of the scientists is interviewed by Richard Holliman (Professor of Engaged Research).
These interviewees were selected because (at time of writing) they are current Open University scientists and are actively researching and producing new scientific knowledge. However, they also conduct research in different academic disciplines: life and health sciences; chemistry and analytical sciences; and environment, Earth and ecosystem sciences.
Compare and contrast all four (or at least two) of the audio interviews to explore where their perspectives are similar and different. To this end, you should listen to each of the interviews more than once, and consider the following questions. There is a box beneath the audio clips where you can make notes as you listen.
- What are the current topics of enquiry for each scientist?
- What do these scientists see as key characteristics of successful scientists?
- What scientific evidence do these scientists see as agreed knowledge in their discipline?
- What mechanisms do they describe for how this knowledge was evaluated?
- What would it take for agreed knowledge in science to be replaced with new knowledge?
When you have completed your analysis of the interviews, compare and contrast the scientists’ perspectives on the questions asked above. In particular, look for any consistency or diversity in the responses about the characteristics required of a successful scientist, the relative maturity of the knowledge that each scientist describes as ‘agreed’, and the mechanisms for evaluating provisional scientific knowledge.
At the start of the respective interviews each of the four scientists describes their topics of enquiry. The topics are diverse with little obvious overlap:
- geology; mountain building and formation of metamorphic rocks (Clare)
- health sciences; the workings of the heart at the level of molecular biology (Martin)
- chemistry; breath analysis as a diagnostic tool (Claire)
- applied ecology and conservation biology; how humans and ecological systems interrelate and influence each other (Phil).
Where the work of these researchers does overlap is that they see similar characteristics in successful scientists.
- First, they discuss the need to be curious, enquiring and creative in identifying challenges.
- Second, they discuss the need to be observant, analytical and sceptical in researching the challenges that have been identified.
- Third, they argue for the need to be persuasive in convincing others that newly-published research has originality, rigour and significance.
- Finally, they talk of the need for determination, perseverance and hard work, with cooperation required between researchers when working in teams.
The interviewees share other similarities. They are all working at the frontiers of scientific knowledge in their respective disciplines. As they conduct their investigations, these scientists draw on existing evidence and interpretations published by other researchers to further scientific knowledge.
For Phil and Martin, the agreed knowledge they discuss in relation to their respective topics of enquiry is more than 150 years old. Clare Warren’s comments about the science of plate tectonics point to more recent knowledge, but no less foundational in its importance to geologists.
Phil, Martin and Clare Warren accept that the agreed knowledge they discuss could be replaced, but it would be very unlikely given the respective bodies of evidence that support the three underpinning theories. In effect, scientists working in these respective disciplines have established a scientific consensus around what could be considered foundational knowledge for any entry-level researcher.
In contrast, Claire Turner discusses ancient knowledge about the links between smell and disease. She argues that it is only very recently that researchers have been able to analyse breath samples using scientific techniques (i.e. since the 1970s).
Further, she notes that her discipline has yet to develop agreed standards by which breath samples can be analysed consistently and rigorously. In essence, her discipline is working towards the foundational knowledge that Phil, Clare and Martin’s disciplines already have in place.
What should be apparent is that for all four scientists, the process of knowledge production is fundamental to their research. Scientific knowledge progresses from what has been previously known or agreed through processes of investigation, evaluation and verification. This process of verifying results happens at the level of individual scientists, checking and repeating experiments until they are satisfied that their findings are valid, but also at the level of the wider scientific community.
Most of the time, scientific progress involves small, incremental gains in knowledge, with each gain being verified independently by other scientists. This is in contrast to more fundamental shifts in understanding like the one described by Martin Bootman in Audio 2.
The work Martin describes can be characterised as a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1996) because this research successfully challenged the existing scientific consensus in this academic field. He notes the time it took for the new evidence to become agreed knowledge. This required an initial publication (Lipp et al., 2000), evaluated through a process called peer review. This initial research was then further supported by other researchers who tested the original theory, and found it to be supported by evidence they published following peer review.
The interviews in the previous activity were recorded in the summer of 2016. Given the nature of contemporary science, these researchers have continued to produce new knowledge. If you are interested to see what they have been up to in the intervening period, complete the following optional activity.