Sigma Xi is The Scientific Research Honor Society: What is Research, Anyway?

by Tee Guidotti | Jan 10, 2018

Tee Guidotti Recently, a conversation thread in Sigma Xi’s online member community, The Lab, asked the decidedly not  rhetorical question, “How does Sigma Xi define research?”

Your Society officers have talked a lot  about this over the last 132 years. The informal consensus is that Sigma Xi honors scientific  research and that the essential feature of scientific research is not numbers, test tubes, or p  values but the scientific method, in particular falsification. The key element is whether a defined hypothesis is being tested in a critical manner and the process is self-correcting (e.g. not based on untestable theory or simply accumulation of facts). The short answer is: it's not about the discipline. It's about the approach to the problem. The long answer is more complicated and interesting. 

There is science in disciplines not counted among the sciences. Historical interpretation? If based on an untestable theory, such as Marxism, no. But the rigorous approach of the Annales  school of historiography? Très scientifique. Literary analysis? Reading Jane Austen, I don’t think so. Analyzing word frequency in comparative texts for clues to changing attitudes and to understand the text, however, maybe. Philosophical inquiry? All science derives from materialist philosophy and the philosophical field of science studies uses the methods of science. Much rigorous thinking in philosophy apart from these examples does  involve falsification, in the sense that like a mathematical proof, it hinges on seeking contradiction. (In fact, Wittgenstein’s Tractus Logico-Philosophicus is structured as a proof.) Theological studies? Not so much! Drug-assisted bliss studies? Empirical but not generalizable!

This existential question reached a crisis moment in 1927, when a member was admitted for scholarship in “public speaking.” This caused an uproar and forced reconsideration of what disciplines were considered true sciences. Back then, the solution was to make up what turned out to be an elaborate taxonomy of the sciences, written on sheets of paper that resembled Linnaeus’ taxonomy of life forms. In more recent years, your Sigma Xi leadership has looked at the problem differently, accepting that application of the scientific method  defined eligibility for Sigma Xi membership and recognition, not the field in which it is applied. 

It has become clear that recognizing valid research in science by classifying disciplines is a fruitless project. Fields split. Sciences that began as purely descriptive become predictive and quasi-experimental, like astronomy and astrophysics. Studies rooted in the humanities may become true sciences, such as how philology morphed into linguistics which morphed into a cognitive science, now connected with artificial intelligence. It has become less clear that applied technology is fundamentally different from discovery research, for example with respect to computer science and big data, which we’ll be addressing at our annual conference in October 2018. 

In fact, it seems that trying to assess scientific validity by classifying fields of inquiry is just a modern-day revival of the ancient (Pythagorean) idea that “academically-worthy” is defined by a rigorous and traditionally-defined “quadrivium” (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) supported by mastery of the less respected “trivium” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), from which comes the word “trivial.” (“Public speaking” may have been an important skill in the trivium but it didn’t make it into the quadrivium.) 

Sigma Xi leaders were ultimately wise to appreciate that science takes many forms, that the model of lab research is not the only or always the purest form of scientific research, that qualitative and observational studies have their place and are not second-class science, that some scientific approaches do not involve experimentation but are still grounded on testable hypotheses, and that some fields that bridge science and its application to policy (such as risk science, where definition of uncertainty is key) can make basic and general contributions to understanding and knowledge. We are also seeing the fusion of the natural sciences and social sciences, in the form of analysis and proposed solutions of so-called “sociotechnical” or “wicked” problems. Outside the laboratory, this synthesis is one of the biggest growth areas in research today.

So, let us be a little less concerned with the fields in which our colleagues work and more interested in how they work and the culture of science. Sigma Xi can be inclusive—it cannot be indiscriminate.

One of the intellectual giants of the sixteenth century was Paolo Sarpi, the Venetian cleric who conducted credible, original research in mathematics (especially geometry), physics (especially density and optics), and medicine (papillary dilation and the valves of the veins). However, he is remembered mostly for his minutely analyzed historical research, which is credited with saving the Republic of Venice by documenting facts on a bitter dispute in theology that had political implications. I’d like to think that Paolo would be welcome as a member of Sigma Xi!

Tee Guidotti is a past president of Sigma Xi and an international consultant on health, safety, and environment management and sustainability. 

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