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Debugging Science

by Craig Good

July 7, 2011

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Donate Skeptics make an effort to follow the science. We know that science is a messy, self-correcting process. But what happens when science has a bug in it?

A quarter of a century ago, most of the computing work done by scientists was relatively straightforward. But as computers and programming tools have grown more complex, scientists have hit a "steep learning curve", says James Hack, director of the US National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "The level of effort and skills needed to keep up aren't in the wheelhouse of the average scientist."

As a general rule, researchers do not test or document their programs rigorously, and they rarely release their codes, making it almost impossible to reproduce and verify published results generated by scientific software, say computer scientists. At best, poorly written programs cause researchers such as Harry to waste valuable time and energy. But the coding problems can sometimes cause substantial harm, and have forced some scientists to retract papers.
Doing good science and writing good code are different skill sets. Perhaps scientists need to reach out to some good coders and make them part of the team. Computers are certainly a vital infrastructure for science these days. It's at least good that more are becoming aware of the problem.


by Craig Good

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