LAUNCH OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY META-RESEARCH AND OPEN SCIENCE
THURSDAY, 7 NOVEMBER 2019
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We often think of the era of William Shakespeare and the era of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as being the same. But in fact, the beliefs of educated people in those two eras were very different. The average educated person in the early 1600s believed in unicorns. They believed in werewolves. They believed that the sun rotated around the Earth. The average educated person in the 1600s believed that when a murderer approached the body, it would begin to bleed. Those people believe that witches actually existed, and they believed in alchemy. Alchemy was one of the most popular beliefs of the age. Indeed, Isaac Newton spent more time studying alchemy than he did during doing physics. Keynes once said of Newton that he wasn't the first of the scientists, he was the last of the magicians. It makes you wonder what other inventions Newton could have come up with had he spent a little bit less time on alchemy.
But by 1750, all those beliefs had changed. What changed them? I want to argue tonight that it wasn't experimentation. Alchemists were forever doing experimentation, always fiddling, always mixing things. According to David Wootton, what killed alchemy was open science. Open science was a move towards publishing your results, doing your experiments in the ways others could replicate. It began to persuade the scientific community that there was no such thing as alchemy, that you couldn't turn base metals into gold. That very same tradition transformed the other views I spoke to you about before. Open science means that by the 1750s, by Mozart's era, educated people did not believe in werewolves. They did not believe in unicorns. They didn't think that a victim’s body would begin to bleed when the murderer came near. And they didn't believe in alchemy. We had a shift away from the era of the magician towards an era of the sciences.
The problem is today while science has made that shift, too many areas of life still look a lot more like alchemy than science. Many business people say that they make decisions based on instincts rather than on data. Too many public policymakers make their decisions based on pure theory rather than on hard evidence. The challenge is to adopt that Enlightenment approach, and move towards doing experiments openly, sharing them and replicating them. We need to bring that philosophy to social science, to business, and public policy.
You all are at the vanguard. In some areas of business, research and policy, we are where scientific understanding was 1600. It ought not take another 150 years to get from magic to science. We can get there are a whole lot quicker, through open science, through replication and through conducting more randomised trials. Through its a combination of numeracy and modesty, open science can change the world for the better.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.