A Thought Experiment for Scientists

With all of the talk about the Climategate emails I devised a simple thought experiment for scientists. Let us imagine that you are teaching a college science class and you have assigned a science project to your students that will comprise the majority of their grade for the semester. The objective of the project is demonstrate the student’s knowledge of the material you are teaching, their ability to follow the scientific process like a scientist, and their ability to defend their conclusion in front of their fellow students. At the end of the semester you find one student who appears to have reasonable results but they lost the raw data and the method they transformed the raw data into the data that supports their conclusion. When you ask the student how they know the conclusion is correct, their primary defense is that it matches the results turned in by other students. During the defense of the project the other students do not seem to be bothered about the missing raw data and the method the data was transformed. So what grade do you give this student?

  • You give the student an ”˜A’ or a ”˜B’ since they got the right result. Their defense of the conclusion was excellent despite the missing data and lack of questions by the other students.
  • You give the student a ”˜C’ or an ”˜Incomplete’ since the conclusion was indefensible without the raw data and method used to transform the data. You are bothered that the other students were not more aggressive pursuing the questioning of this project. You have this uncomfortable sense of collusion amongst the students but you are unwilling to judge whether the student’s actions were deliberant or an unfortunate accident.
  • You give the student a ”˜F’ since you believe the student deliberately subverted the scientific process. You want to send a message to the students in the class and to those students planning on taking this course to forewarn them that this behavior will not be tolerated.