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Quality in Science

By Jerome Ravetz

To start, ‘quality’ now means ‘goodness’.  But it is not a simple property.  In fact, it is complex, recursive and moral.  First, for any thing or action, there are a plurality of attributes of quality, each of which will have its own criteria and standards.  These do not come from nowhere; for each there will be a social system that defines and then monitors them.  This immediately raises the question in the Latin motto, ‘who guards the guardians?’

For each answer, the question is reiterated, and so there is a recursive process.  The tasks are different, at the different levels; and ultimately there is a sanction in an informal, perhaps indefinable thing called ‘public opinion’.  We see this most clearly in the case of school exams, where children are tested by special agencies, and these are inspected by other agencies, up to the political level where a Minister is responsible; and (as happened not long ago) if things go very wrong then the Minister resigns because public opinion has made their position untenable.

There is a distinction between quality control and quality assurance; the latter refers to the total complex process.  The maintenance of quality is very much a moral process.  This is because it is impossible to make a complete specification of tasks at the lowest level; evasion of imposed standards is always possible.  Hence if operatives do not believe in the system to some extent, it will fail.  Their adherence to the system will depend on their morale, and that is conditioned by what they observe of the behavior of those who govern them.  In that sense, corruption starts at the top.

Science is exceptional among systems of production in that its quality-assurance is largely informal. There can be no testers with go/no-go gauges at the end of the research line.  Because of this, it must necessarily be self-policing.  This enables a greater flexibility and subtlety in its actions, thus distinguishing between encouraging the best and discouraging the worst.  But it also makes it vulnerable to corruption. I explored this topic in my old book, and there came to the paradoxical conclusion that the achievement of objective knowledge about the external world depends on the strength of the ethical commitments of the leaders of a community.

Problems with severe uncertainties and high decision-stakes are so different from those of ‘normal science’ that its traditionally-trained practitioners are not fully competent to assess quality in that sphere.  Hence the ‘extended peer community’ has a vital role to play.

Of course, the conclusion of all this is that quality cannot be assessed with certainty.

This is a quick summary Jerry Ravetz wrote at my request in 2011 of a much longer book on the subject he co-wrote with Silvio Funtowitz in 1990 called Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy. It was originally published at Tallbloke’s Talkshop


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