For example, I have never get closed to a whale. The only source I have is research from who has get close to it. If I read their research and find a new thing, would my "discovery" be scientific? If yes, can you give some example of such research?

There is a related question in Philosophy SE: “Dinosaurs did exist once”. Is it knowledge or is it only justified belief? However this question is more about the knowledge directly produced by field researchers, while in this question I focus more on researchers who can only access secondary research. Plus that dinosaurs extincted, so in a sense I and a paleontologist are equal: neither of us can have direct experience to a living dinosaur. But whales are still living, and that equality is gone. So maybe the threshold for scientific research between a living organism and an extinct one is different?

Follow up questions:
Is it possible to have a scientific review of a method if the author doesn't have direct experience of it? on Philosophy SE
Can one have good understanding on a method without having direct experience with it? on Data Science SE

Meta question: Why are questions about whether research without direct experience is scientific or not subjective?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ While interesting, I feel this question is not well suited for Biology.SE. Any answers you receive will be necessarily subjective; re: What constitutes a scientific discovery? Is research conducted from second-hand data truly research? $\endgroup$
    – acvill
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @acvill I've considered asking on Philosophy or Academia, but I would like to have insight specifically from biologists. I suppose there are good subjective questions? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 15:14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ To build on @Punintended's comment: you have immense amounts of publicly available data (see for example GEO Datasets) that anyone can download and analyze without any necessary interaction with the original authors. $\endgroup$
    – gaspanic
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 22:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Hard to answer but you can look into meta-analysis and see if that's appropriate or even feasible for whatever you're trying to do. $\endgroup$
    – m4rio
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 1:27
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ How close do you think astronomers get to the subjects of their studies? $\endgroup$
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 17:26

1 Answer 1


It depends on one's field - whether what you study actually requires first-hand knowledge of the experimental subject and the methods of dealing with or not. Moreover, one could invert the question and ask, whether a field, based solely on the knowledge of the experimental subject, can be considered science?

Theoretical physics/chemistry/etc.

In some sciences, such as physics, there is traditional division into experimentalists and theoreticians - the former are people who actually work in a lab, but who limit themselves to very basic statistical analysis of the phenomena observed. The latter are providing deeper, model-based, analysis of the data and description of the phenomena. Very often their work is not tied to any particular experiment, bordering on very abstract math. Looking at the list of the Nobel prize winners in physics one can easily convince oneself that this work is no less valuable than the experimental work.

Similar division exists in other fields, e.g., one can freely talk about quantum/theoretical/computational chemistry.

Computational biology, bioinformatics, biostatistics, epidemiology, population genetics

Although biology is relatively young science, the times when it was frowned upon by physicists as mere stamp collecting have long been gone: evolutionary theory and epidemiology have been put on a firm mathematical footing, and the explosion of genomic data in the last couple of decades has ushered in the professions of bioinformatician and computational biologist - all complete with designated job descriptions and advanced university programs. Less noticeable, but no else widespread is the observation using modern technology - such as video and sound recording - every conference features a few talks like this, related to swarms of insects, flocks of birds, or behavior of whales (incidentally, whales have been extensively studied in connection to tracing enemy submarines. The analysis of the data is often done very far away from the sea.)

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. - a quote attributed to Ernest Rutherford, but likely of even earlier origin.


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