The Digital Age Liberates Science - Evolution News & Views

Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

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The Digital Age Liberates Science

Science has protected its public trust through peer review, publication, and replication. The digital age is changing that. Science is reducing its dependence on journals, and inviting more collaboration, public scrutiny and lay involvement. A sociologist of science thinks this can be a good thing. Will it open doors for intelligent design?

When it comes to maintaining quality control in science, there's nothing sacred about peer review, publication or replication. In essence, those are mere human conventions that have seemed to work (more or less) to protect science from wild ideas during certain periods of civilization. They do not preclude other methods of quality control when conditions change. And they are indeed changing: the digital age with the Internet, cloud computing and instant free online publication was not envisioned by the inventors of peer review.

It must be noted, too, that the old regime was less than ideal. Replication is not practicable for many types of scientific inquiry (e.g., for unique, one-of-a-kind observations, or for decades-long longitudinal studies). Scientific institutions have been disturbingly prone to reign by consensus; they sometimes shut out mavericks who might have the best ideas, and quite often promote conformity rather than scrutiny. Intelligent-design scientists know this all too well. In addition, journal subscriptions are expensive, shutting out a large segment of the public from scrutinizing scientific claims, and forcing scientists to compete for print space in profit-driven publications. The digital age is breaking down the paywalls. Scientists can get their ideas out in new open-access online journals, with new measures to protect their intellectual property. Other scientists can instantly comment on their findings without worrying about space limits, and the public can watch the show as never before.

In Nature last week, Jerome Ravetz from Oxford University's Institute for Science, Innovation and Society explored the new possibilities of the digital age. His essay, "Sociology of Science: Keep Standards High," reminds readers that science is a sociological phenomenon. Science is not "out there" in the world as an independent reality; it is always mediated by human beings. The phrase "Keep standards high" presupposes that science needs moral standards: honesty, integrity, diligence. Those things don't evolve, even if Ravetz believes the practices of quality control can do so:

Science is unique among areas of organized activity and production in that it has an informal quality-assurance system: peer review, publication and replication. The system has worked well since its inception in the seventeenth century, when the scientific journal came into being. But it is now being challenged as technology changes social practices of science. How might it evolve?
We all know how blogs, digital media, and social networks have changed the way we manage information and keep in touch with one another. What this is doing to science is profound. Now, more people can get involved in the production of scientific knowledge. More scientists can collaborate, and do so instantly (think of web-based meetings vs. flying across the Atlantic for annual conferences). Scientists can blog in advance of publication to get valuable pre-publication peer review. Amateurs can get involved in large, world-wide efforts, such as classifying galaxies, counting craters on Mars, or solving complex protein-folding problems: "Anyone can become a co-creator of scientific knowledge," Ravetz says.

These trends are having unforeseen consequences. For instance, the monopoly of print journals is falling like Kodak stock shares after the introduction of digital cameras:

As a result of these developments, the product of research is becoming more fluid. The journal is losing its status as the sole gatekeeper -- simultaneous guarantor of quality, certifier of property, medium of communication and also archive. Other means of sharing material, assessing quality and screening out the incompetent or fraudulent are emerging to fill the gap, but ultimately the professional monopoly on quality assurance of science will have to be modified.
Ravetz worries a little that the widening of science, however liberating, can risk lowering standards. "Not everyone shares the ideal that intellectual integrity comes before personal gain," he said. Self-appointed gatekeepers might become demagogues on their blogs, for instance.

Overall, though, he sees more silver lining than cloud: "Although scientific expertise presents a bar to interference, concerned outsiders have a legitimate and useful role," he says. They can help set policy priorities. They can act as whistle-blowers: "Here, the blogosphere holds great promise for free information sharing," he said, provided society can guard against self-serving demagogues and fraudsters.

Ravetz finds it ironic that the technology sector is pioneering the way with scientists following along behind: open source, Creative Commons, informal collaboration, free publication, technology sharing. Ravetz envisions an "open science" that achieves the ideals of sociologist Robert Merton: "communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality and skepticism." For this to happen, he says, "barriers to sharing scientific information with the public, such as journal paywalls, should come down."

These new ways of doing science will not necessarily lower standards, Ravetz thinks. Like historian of science Steven Shapin of Harvard said, scientific quality is predicated on trust and civility. Those values can be extended to the new "extended peer community" of the digital age. Scientists should take their blinders off and humble themselves:

Scientists have a special responsibility, but also a special difficulty. When their training has been restricted to puzzles with just one right answer, scientists may find it hard to comprehend honest error, and may condemn those who persist in apparently wrong beliefs. But amid all the uncertainties of science in the digital age, if quality assurance is to be effective, this lesson of civility will need to be learned by us all.
These ideas from Ravetz are pregnant with possibilities for intelligent design. For too long, the scientific institutions have been like castles with high walls, pouring boiling oil on those deemed to be enemies by the self-appointed guardians of science (almost all pro-Darwin usurpers). Now, those walls are coming down. ID advocates can blog, publish downloadable e-books on the cheap, comment on papers, and collaborate across the world instantaneously.

It's already happening: The ID-friendly digital journal BIO-Complexity is a pioneer. You're reading Discovery Institute's Evolution News & Views blog; we have the ID the Future podcast, and our Metamorphosis e-book is free to download. Michael Behe keeps a lively debate going with critical scientists on his Amazon review page. But there are challenges, too; the anti-ID gatekeepers at Wikipedia quickly reverse all attempts to clean up lies and distortions even as countless readers imagine the online encyclopedia to be objective and authoritative.

Every revolution offers challenges and opportunities. We are in the midst of a global tide of change brought on by the digital age. The anti-ID journal strongholds may not last much longer in a world of open access, open collaboration, and open science. If Ravetz sees more good than bad, then ID advocates should, too. Let those who have longed for scientific integrity master the digital age and take the initiative.


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