Saturday, November 2, 2002

Still struggling with the Schon fiasco

I'm completely fascinated by the controversy surrounding Hendrik Schon's fall from grace.

Scientists describe a sense of betrayal and strive to reestablish the authority of all of their work: The Materials Research Society "is pleased to note that through several attempts to reproduce the results, the scientific community was able to identify the flawed work. This self-checking process ensures that erroneous work, whether it is produced by genuine error or deliberate fraud, is always eventually corrected."

The struggle to regain control over truthful information has most recently spilled into cyberspace, where many of Schon's papers - now retracted by academic publishers - are still available, and presumably misinforming the public.

In tribal societies, shaming is a common and powerful form of social control. The tribe will physically, and symbolically, turn their backs to the offender and shut them out of the group. To be shamed is to be excommunicated - left alive, but alone. Without access to prior social bonds, the outsider effectively fades away from existence. But the tribe is always left with the task of reinforcing the norms that were violated - of reestablishing the "us" in the face of the "other".

Schon's case offers an interesting look at the social construction of scientific knowledge. There is real power at stake here - the validity and authority of Science has been undermined by one of their best, which consequently impacts the rest. Scientific research relies heavily on previous work - the ability to reproduce or invalidate someone else's experiments. Progress occurs, quite simply (so it's said) because each iteration of research gets us closer to the truth. Every scientist that cited Schon's work to support their own research now has to go back and do it again - knowing that it is based on faulty premises. But this situation also affords the opportunity to rearticulate the boundaries of scientific research and knowledge, to delineate what is good and bad, right and wrong. Constraints and assumptions that are often invisible become visible during crisis, and offer a unique glimpse of the rule-making process.

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