12 October 2018

Sharing stories of consensus building: the missing step in the scientific method

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Kathy Kelsey

As a kid in school, I learned the narrative of the scientific method: a scientist makes an observation about the world which inspires a question, they pose a hypothesis, carry out an experiment, and produce and share their results.  Now that I am a practicing scientist I have learned that this narrative neglects a key component: the process of building consensus among scientists.  It’s important that we as scientists discuss the critical role of consensus building in our discipline to share and promote the truly collaborative and community-oriented nature of science.

Dr. Kelsey tells a story of her experience with process of building consensus in science at a science storytelling event in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo credit: E. Lescak

Practicing scientists will agree that one of the most arduous parts of our job is subjecting our research to anonymous evaluation by our peers before publication.  However, we still revere peer review as a central tenet of our discipline because it is designed to keep the quality of work high and ensure the field is moving forward.  Peer review is one component of consensus building in science, but not the only one.  We also agree that even a published result is not enough to completely adopt a new idea.  Science requires reproducibility – more than one study producing the same result – before a novel concept is accepted.

Despite the importance of peer review and reproducibility to science, these concepts are not thrilling to talk about.  But as practicing scientists we are all part of the consensus building process, and can discuss it on a personal level.  I recently felt the power of this process after I conducted a field study that produced interesting but hard-to-explain results about the effects of climate change on forests.  After several rounds of peer-review, one reviewer gave a critical suggestion that revolutionized my interpretation of the results.  With this new idea in hand, the work was hugely improved, and published right away.  And I never even knew the name of the reviewer who gave this important suggestion!  I found that this experience, recounted in parallel with the challenges and rewards of the fieldwork for this study, made a great story I recently shared at a Science Storytelling event.

So now I have a favor to ask. Have you been part of an unlikely collaboration that has produced great results – and along the way some funny stories?  Or maybe you’ve had a new idea inspired by someone else’s work?  Your personal story about how we as a scientific community work to gradually inch our discipline forward can spread the word that science is a field for those who like to work together, to build on the great ideas of others, and be part of a dynamic community gradually building consensus to make the world a better place.

– Dr. Kathy Kelsey is an Environmental Scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is also part of AGU’s Voices for Science initiative.