The Self-Correcting Nature of Science

The methods and culture of scientific research enable it to be a self-correcting enterprise. Because researchers are, by definition, creating new understanding, they must be as cautious as possible before asserting a new “truth.” Also, because researchers are working at a frontier, few others may have the knowledge to catch and correct any errors they make. Thus, science has had to develop means of revisiting provisional results and revealing errors before they are widely used. The processes of peer review, publication, collegial interactions (e.g., sharing at conferences), and the involvement of graduate students (who are expected to question as they learn) all support this need. Science is characterized also by a culture that encourages and rewards critical questioning of past results and of colleagues. Most technologies benefit from a solid research foundation in academia and ample opportunity for peer-to-peer stimulation and critical assessment, review and critique through conferences, seminars, publishing, and more. These elements provide a rich set of paths through which new ideas and skepticism can travel and opportunities for scientists to step away from their day-to-day work and take a longer-term view. The scientific culture encourages cautious, precise statements and discourages statements that go beyond established facts; it is acceptable for colleagues to challenge one another, even if the challenger is more junior. The forensic science disciplines will profit enormously by full adoption of this scientific culture.


The way in which science is conducted is distinct from, and complementary to, other modes by which humans investigate and create. The methods of science have a long history of successfully building useful and trustworthy knowledge and filling gaps while also correcting past errors. The premium that science places on precision, objectivity, critical thinking, careful observation and practice, repeatability, uncertainty management, and peer review enables the reliable collection, measurement, and interpretation of clues in order to produce knowledge.

The effects of contextual top-down processing on matching fingerprints. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology 19:799-809; and B. Schiffer and C. Champod. 2007. The potential (negative) influence of observational biases at the analysis stage of fingerprint individualization. Forensic Science International 167:116-120.

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