How Research Transparency Affects the Public Value of Science

Saturday, February 13, 2016: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
One attribute that distinguishes scientific explanations from others is that science offers an increased capacity for honesty in attempts to characterize social, behavioral and natural phenomena. For some readers, this description may seem odd. After all, some scientific analyses are so complex that they complicate more than they clarify.

Science’s increased capacity for honesty comes from researchers’ willingness and ability to publicize the path from a particular set of observations to a particular conclusion about the social world. Indeed, the focal expectation among science research traditions is that the meaning of a conclusion should not depend on who is making the claim or on irreproducible procedures. When researchers are transparent about the procedures that they use to produce and evaluate their conclusions, they give these conclusions a meaning that others can inspect for themselves. Such processes give scientists the ability to tell decision makers in the public and private sector things about the world that they could not have discovered on their own.

This capacity for honesty is particularly valuable when vested interests seek to interpret important events in self-interested ways. Consider, for example, the many interpretations that follow monthly releases of economic data. The current government’s supporters often claim the data as evidence of their success, while the government’s opposition alleges that the data signals the government’s failure. At such moments, societies benefit from being able to differentiate false stories from explanations that are consistent with transparent logic applied to the best available evidence. Science canprovide such benefits.

While science can provide an understanding of important phenomena that is precise and credible, it does not always do so. Across the sciences, there have been many cases in which research claims cannot be replicated and, in a few cases, instances of fraud.  Scholars who seek to have science fully leverage the legitimacy that comes from being transparent about how knowledge claims are produced are pursuing a series of projects that make sharing data and information about scientific procedures easier and more appealing to scholars. The Reproducibility Project in psychology and Data Access and Research Transparency (DA-RT) in political science are examples of broad collaborations that can help scholars document how they know what they claim to know.

Transparency, in turn, generates self-correcting mechanisms, where replication uncovers errors, and the possibility of replication encourages rigor. This openness distinguishes science from many other sources of information (e.g., news reports, interest group claims). When science operates in this way, it provides value to society by helping the public and private sectors evaluate their feelings and beliefs with respect to credible data and replicable logic.

[i] I thank Colin Elman for suggesting this wording.