Investigating Rigor

“Rigor” is a sought after label in scientific research. Iconic scientific troubles, like the reproducibility crisis, have been directly connected with failure to engage in rigorous research. Despite this, there is little understanding of how rigor is best characterized, nor how rigor rose to prominence as a research desideratum. 

Through 2022, this seminar joins scholars from multiple departments at Indiana University and other universities across the Midwest (and beyond) to bring both scientific and humanistic expertise to bear on the question of rigor.  We are exploring how the understanding of rigor developed across multiple historical and experimental contexts. Recreated historical experiments are used to situate analysis of historical discussion of methods.

Isaac Newton famously concluded his Opticks of 1717 by emphasizing the need for paired analysis and synthesis as tools of scientific discovery. Seminar participants are exploring how these concepts existed in material and chemical analysis before Newton, but also how these notions were expanded and employed by Newton and less studied contemporaries.  We trace these early accounts of analysis and synthesis as scientific rigor into the 19th century, where they shape the understanding of scientific method at a time when the modern professionalized scientific community was taking form.

In addition to analysis and synthesis, we fold experimental control and replication into our discussion of rigor. They are core ideas in contemporary science, yet have been subject to striking historical neglect. We aim for both generality, as notions of control and replication are widely traveling methodological concepts, and specificity, as their understanding is often anchored to particular disciplinary standards. 

Understandings of scientific methodology and standards of good practice guide scientific inquiry, structuring what questions can be productively asked and answered and when an answer is seen as acceptable. In this sense, our seminar explores how considerations of rigor can have a formative influence on scientific knowledge. We engage with both the positive and negative implications of this. A hegemonic understanding of rigor can marginalize scholarship branded as less rigorous, and our research group  is investigating what scholarship is marginalized and why, to uncover the role of social and political values in addition to epistemic ones. 

Seminar conveners Jutta Schickore and William Newman provide expertise in philosophy of the experiment, medieval and renaissance history, and the history of scientific methodology. But it is the interdisciplinary sweep of the seminar participants, which enables a project that explores multiple dimensions of rigor across large swaths of the history of science.

On the one hand, looming climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that the problems of the future may demand challenging technical solutions undergirded by solid science. The reproducibility crisis has made clear this is not easy. On the other, present and future problems may also require alternative approaches and insights that do not fit easily within an overly narrow or rigid conception of rigorous research.

Responding to these challenges, our research group is laying the foundation for a richer more historically informed understanding of rigor.

This Sawyer Seminar is funded by the Mellon Foundation