Is the scientific paper a fraud?

Much of scientific communication takes place in scientific papers, but the scientific paper has also received a lot of critique. In 1963 Peter Medawar (1991, 228–233) wrote that the scientific paper is a fraud. Not because it contains misinformation, but because it gives a faulty impression of the process of doing science.

According to Medawar, the scientific paper in its usual form misrepresents the thought processes that gave rise to the work described in the paper. Medawar’s discontent with the scientific paper is based on the idea that science, the discovery of new ideas, is, contrary to how the scientific paper represents it, not inductive in its fundamental nature.

Medawar gives three reasons why the inductive form is not the correct one. First, induction implies that we always start with an untarnished mind and naively collect observations or bits of data and then somehow come up with new knowledge, whereas in fact it usually goes the other way around.

Second, it is often thought that discovery and proof are parts of the same intellectual process, whereas in fact that is only possible when we are doing deductive inferences, and actually, when deducing, we are not really discovering anything other than what was already included in the hypothesis in the first place.

The third objection Medawar has to the inductive form is that it is not possible to arrive at a conclusion that contains more information than the total sum of particular observations. Inductive hypotheses are not universalizations that somehow sum up the individual statements and in doing so generate genuinely new knowledge.

So neither the inductive or the deductive form of inference alone is the one that can be identified behind the process of coming up with genuinely new knowledge. But there is a third type of inference that Medawar did not mention in his essay, namely abduction. Abduction can be characterized as basic level intuitive inference, which also often involves guessing. Whenever we encounter a surprising fact, we are forced to use our abductive powers.

Scientific inquiry often begins when we encounter a surprising fact. You are forced to form a somewhat intuitive hypothesis, a generalization, and then you start collecting relevant data. As long as the particular data fits the hypothesis, there is no need to correct or discard it. ‘The hypothesis has stood up to trial and remains on probation’, like Medawar puts it.

Medawar was only describing one type of scientific paper and exaggerating a little. But it’s clear that only the successful hypotheses make it to the publication. Whenever we read such a paper, we remain unaware of the underlying processes that are fundamental to doing science. That includes guesswork and failure as well, which are both necessary in order to come up with creative new ideas and new knowledge. That’s what abduction often is, guesswork. It is therefore also ironic that in order to get funding for your research, you should have explicable results before your research even starts, and we all know how hard it is to sell an intuition. Unless of course the research involves using a bunch of expensive instruments.

  • Medawar, Peter B. 1991. The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists. Edited by David Pyke. New York: Oxford University Press.

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