Science is not as tidy as it looks

Cartoon showing a series of tries and undos but ending by saying it only took two steps.

I’ve recently rediscovered Robert K. Merton.  As a student I knew a little about his social roles work but I knew very little about the person.

That is until I happened upon On the Shoulders of Giant: A Shandean Postscript which is equal parts history and parody.  It didn’t take long before I knew that this is someone I need to know more about.

Today’s cartoon was inspired by the preface of the 1985 Vicennial Edition.

the rock-bound difference between the finished versions of scientific work as they appear in print and the actual course of inquiry followed by the inquirer.  The difference is a little like that between textbooks on ‘scientific method’ and the ways in which scientists actually think, feel, and go about their work.

The books on methods present ideal patterns: how scientists ought to think, feel and act, but these tidy normative patterns, as everyone who has engaged in [such] inquiry knows, do not reproduce the typically untidy, opportunistic adaptations that scientists make in the course of their inquiries.

Typically, the scientific paper or monograph presents an immaculate appearance which reproduces little or nothing of the intuitive leaps, false starts, mistakes, loose ends and happy accidents that actually cluttered up the inquiry.