Successful science should inspire higher standards.
Science seldom works as well as it's supposed to.
In principle, science should be the gold standard for acquiring reliable knowledge, using methods that eliminate prejudice and bias by conforming to universal standards of proper inference and verification.
In practice, of course, science's methods are applied by fallible people who don't always succeed in assessing the evidence impartially. No better example of science's shortcomings can be found than the reporting of clinical trials. As Rachel Ehrenberg describes in this issue (Page 14), studies of new medicines often don't get published. And among such studies submitted to the FDA by companies seeking drug approval, those unfavorable to the drug are less likely to be published than favorable studies. Even worse, sometimes the conclusion in a study provided to the FDA is changed when the study is published in the scientific literature. Something is going on there, and it is not science at its best.
On the other hand, sometimes science is spectacularly successful, even in the face of severe methodological difficulties. As Ron Cowen reports (Page 13), particle physicists have now succeeded in using their standard theory to accurately compute the masses of the proton, neutron and related particles.
Using the theory known as quantum chromodynamics (or QCD), the researchers were able to account for interactions between quarks and gluons--the subatomic inhabitants of protons and neutrons--in sufficient detail to show how those interactions generate the precise amount of mass that protons and neutrons possess.
Of course, physicists already knew what those masses are--by measuring them, a very important aspect of scientific procedure. You didn't need QCD to find out how heavy protons are. But the success of QCD in calculating that mass shows that scientists have achieved a deep level of understanding about how matter works.
And the achievement has its practical aspects, also. As Nobel physics laureate Frank Wilczek of MIT points out in a commentary in Nature, the calculation required an enormous computational effort, aided by sophisticated techniques for dealing with numerous necessary approximations. The success of those techniques means that they can be applied to problems where the answer is not already known by measurement, such as how particles interact within a supernova.
Perhaps even more important, the ability of science to conquer problems of such difficulty might serve as an example, inspiring the scientists who study matters of sickness, health, life and death to do a little better.
--Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief