Editors comment: David recently sent this to some colleagues and I asked if he would permit me to post it as a blog. He agreed. For those of you too young to know, Skinner was a famous (and occasionally controversial, American psychologist perhaps most well known for ‘conditioning’.
Sleet wrote: I recently re-read parts of THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR (BF Skinner, 1953) and what Skinner thought about science …thought I would share this
“Science is a willingness to accept facts even when they are opposed to wishes. We often see things as we want to see them, instead of as they are. Intellectual honesty is an extremely important possession of the successful scientist. Scientists are by nature are not more honest than other men, but the practice of science puts an exceptionally high premium on honesty.
It is characteristic of science that any lack of honesty quickly brings disaster. Consider a scientists who re-tests his own theory. The result may confirm his theory, contradict it, or leave it in doubt. In spite of an inclination to the contrary, he must report a contradiction just as readily as the confirmation. If he does not, someone else will – in a matter of weeks or months – and this will be more damaging to his prestige than if he himself had reported it.
Scientists have simply found that being honest – with oneself as much as with others – is essential to progress. Experiments do not always come out as one expects, but the facts must stand and the expectations fall. The results, not the scientist, know best. Facts must be accepted, no matter how distasteful their momentary consequences.
Scientists have also discovered the value of remaining without an answer until a satisfactory one can be found. This is a difficult lesion. It takes considerable training to avoid premature conclusions, to refrain from making statements on insufficient evidence, and to avoid explanations which are pure invention. Yet the history of science has demonstrated again and again the advantage of these practices.”
When I visited him in 1976, he had a sign on his door that read “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at and missed”. I never asked him, but this quote was probably based on his absolute confidence in the quality and rigor of his own science, and that no matter what his critics said or did, his work had been conducted honestly and his findings were defensible.