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The Holy Grail of Crackpot Filtering: How the arXiv decides what’s science – and what’s not.

19 May 2016, 12:01 UTC
The Holy Grail of Crackpot Filtering: How the arXiv decides what’s science – and what’s not.
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Where do we draw the boundary between science and pseudoscience? It’s is a question philosophers have debated for as long as there’s been science – and last time I looked they hadn’t made much progress. When you ask a sociologist their answer is normally a variant of: Science is what scientists do. So what do scientists do? You might have heard that scientists use what’s called the scientific method, a virtuous cycle of generating and testing hypotheses which supposedly separates the good ideas from the bad ones. But that’s only part of the story because it doesn’t tell you where the hypotheses come from to begin with. Science doesn’t operate with randomly generated hypotheses for the same reason natural selection doesn’t work with randomly generated genetic codes: it would be highly inefficient and any attempt to optimize the outcome would be doomed to fail. What we do instead is heavily filtering hypotheses, and then we consider only those which are small mutations of ideas that have previously proved to work. Scientists like to be surprised, but not too much.Indeed, if you look at the scientific enterprise today, almost all of its institutionalized procedures are methods not for testing hypotheses, but ...

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