In just about any scientific literature, there is an undercurrent of tacit knowledge which is not very directly expressed in any of the published pieces.  That knowledge may cover the following issues, among many others:

1. How the rules of the conversation operate, and how a body of literature on a question coheres.

2. Why certain papers and methods are not taken seriously any more (you don’t generally find outright refutations of them).

3. Which results and papers are taken how seriously.  Citations metrics help here, but not nearly as much as you might think.

4. What kinds of results and methods would be required to induce researchers to move to a new conclusion.

5. Why/when one paper pointing in a particular direction doesn’t prove much of anything, and why people don’t do things a certain way.

6. How, by asking around, you can figure out some (not all) of these issues, even if you do no work in that field.  This includes knowledge of how to interpret the verbal feedback you receive from practitioners and how to integrate it into a broader knowledge of the body of research.

There is much more, as that is a very brief introduction to some key issues.  I now have a few points:

a. I wish people would present this knowledge more directly!  If only in oral form.  Why not have some key people in a field talk through how their field actually works?  Record that, issue transcripts, and yes feed it into LLMs.

b. LLMs should be more explicitly tested for their skill at explaining how these matters work.  It is an important question for how much LLMs might speed up scientific progress.

c. Debates between people will not go well when one person has a good understanding of a particular field in this manner, and the other person does not.  The debates will go even less well when one of the participants doesn’t understand these matters for any field whatsoever, and has no real idea that these questions even exist.  That said, debates stand a chance of going well when both parties share a common understanding on these matters.

d. Many of the people who claim the mantle of science might cite published papers, but in fact they have little or no understanding of science as a conversation and a body of literature.

(Ilya Novak wrote to me: “I think the issue is less that RFk JR is a conspiracy theorist, but that he thinks being “pro science” means being able to reference this or that paper. He does not understand the concept of science as a research agenda among a community of scholars having a long running conversation with back and forth papers. He can reference “big” papers, but he can tell you nothing about their research methods or criticism made of them by subsequent papers.)

e. It is possible to be a successful researcher and not have a great sense of the tacit conventions across other fields, or how you might learn them if you had to.

f. Many contrarian science-related books fail because they fail on this question.  Having the author throw a lot of arguments against the mainstream doesn’t solve this problem.  Very often such commentators fail utterly at identifying and addressing the hinge questions upon which their most substantive propositions depend.

g. The very best science and social science journalists understand these matters, but most do not.

h. There is something unfair about this standard, because it is not extremely transparent and the quality of a person’s scientific understanding cannot always be easily verified to an external audience.  That is bad news for the public acceptance of science, but it does not make these matters less important.

The post What does it mean to understand how a scientific literature is put together? appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.


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