Friday, December 10, 2010

Trust has no place in science #2

Thanks to all who replied and shared their views. Particular thanx to Christina who replied in her blog. With Saml, and Cameron and Bill they think this is about semantics. Linguistic tricks. I hope not; this is too serious to get away with such. "Reliable, trustworthy, assumptions": it's all working around the real issue. Similarly, splitting up 'trust' into 'blind trust' and 'smart trust' is just working around the real problem.

Indeed, my point is different. The key of science is to replace trust by facts. Or, when talking about database, software, research papers in Nature, it is replacing trust with traceability. Actually, we seem to have lost a long-standing tradition of citing previous work when we write down the arguments we base our argumentation on. Facts are backed up with references, providing the required traceability.

Now, compare that to current electronic sciences. We 'trust' our database to have done something sane. Well, don't. They made an attempt, but made errors. As they say with software, having zero bugs just means you have not found them yet.

The real point with 'trust' is, is that it is completely irrelevant. It adds zero to the scholarly discussion. Whether you trust the highly curated ChEMBL database or not, it has errors. (Noel pointed out one source of ambiguity in the ChEMBL database this week). What does matter, instead, is if those errors are significant. Do they affect the conclusions I draw when I use this data. That is what actually matter. Trust has no place in science. Error has.

Sadly, this is basically the hypothesis of the VR grant I wrote up but did not get awarded. But I trust I do better next time.

Why this matters? Well, this is what ODOSOS is about: bring back the traceability into science, and get rid of trust.