Monday, December 06, 2010

Trust has no place in science

One discussion I had often had in the past year, is about trust in science. I, for one, believe (hahahaha; you see the irony? ;) that trust has nothing to do with science. Likewise, any scholar should be, IMHO, hes is suspicious when someone talks about trust. A scholarly scientist will never trust any result: hes will accept it as true or false, but will take responsibility for that decision; hes will not hide behind 'but I trusted him' or 'but it was published in Nature'.

Antony asked last week the community to answer a questionnaire, which turned out the be about our trust in online chemical database. He presented the results at the EBI. This is the slide that summarizes the results from that questionnaire:

We see that trust clearly has a very significant place in science. How disappointing. You can spot me in these results easily: I am the one that consequently answered 'Never Trust' for all databases. It's not that I do not value those databases, but there is no need for them to trust them. I verify. This is actually a point visible in Tony's presentation: we can compare databases.

This is the point that I and others have been making for more than a decade now: if we do things properly, we can do this verification. Anyone can. With Open Data, Open Source, and Open Standards we can. I can only stress once more how important this is. We trust people, we trust government, but repeatedly this trust is taken advantage of. Without transparency, people can hide. By being able to hide, human loose there ability to decide what is right. With transparency, we see things return to normal, as we saw this week with UK politicians.

Further reading in my blog:

Update: if you liked this post, you will also like blogs posts like this one from Björn.


  1. Taking trust out of science is ideally good, but the practicalities of doing so dictate that at some level scientists need to trust that other scientists are doing their job correctly. They should be skeptical of course, but if you trust no one the path to new discoveries is bound to be a very slow and inefficient one.

  2. Myles, of course, scholars will have to to 'build on shoulders' (see one of the linked McPrinciples), but the point is two-fold:

    1. you make the decision to do so, voluntarily, and you alone are responsible for that
    2. you must be aware that trust is therefore never required, and you can do perfectly fine without

    The latter simply refers that you make assumptions: you assume that previous research was done correctly, and this is what you typically write up in your introductory sections of papers. You never write there, well, we trust here that foo did bar... you take responsibility instead.

  3. This is about definitions. If I understand you correctly, you basically want to go from _trusting_ things, to only _assuming_ things, right?

    Problem is that, as long as you - in your daily life - act on these _assumptions_ as if they were true, you are basically using the word "assumption" in the same way as others use the word "trust".

    So, in case this is not the definition of "trust" you are referring to, you will have to declare your definition of trust before dismissing it as inappropriate.

  4. Saml, assuming things is a step in the right direction, perhaps, but not quite what I mean. Assuming things still suffers that you do not have control.

    One important difference is that you can 'test' if an assumption is true, but you cannot test if something is trustworthy.

    But this is not about semantics and not about definitions, this is about having a choice, and making that choice or not. And as a scientist you should not settle for something which you have trust to be correct. That leaves you *without* a choice.

    Moreover, if you choose not to cross-check facts, and choose to blindly trust them (actually, if you have to trust them, you already seem to have mixed feelings about them, otherwise you'd know they'd be true), that is is your choice then, and you can defend that choice if challenged. You will not be able to hide behind 'but I trusted that source'; that is *not* a valid, scholarly argument. Trust has no role there.

    If others are using 'assume' something much like other would use 'trust', then they are equally wrong. You do not assume something to be right in science, you actively pose it to be true. That is part of your scientific argumentation.

    No, just 'assuming' things is not the goal I am setting out.

  5. As a biologist, if I go around trying to verify everything the chemists tell me (via their publications and databases) I will get nowhere.

    Trust has a very important place in science.

  6. Ben, please read my follow up, which comments on your (incorrect) argument: