Scientific Orthodoxy

Posted in Quotes on 2012-04-29 at 20:46:42 by Chris – 1 Comment

I have just been reading an article on phys.org about another step towards the "holy grail" that is controlled nuclear fusion:

Why hadn't researchers pieced together a similar theory of the density-limit puzzle before? The answer, says Gates, lies in how ideas percolate through the scientific community. "The radiation-driven islands idea never got a lot of press," he says. "People thought of them as curiosities. The way we disseminate information is through publications, and this idea had a weak initial push."

This rather euphemistic indictment of the scientific community immediately made me think of three other things I read recently.

Firstly, from "Economics in one lesson" by Henry Hazlitt (Harper & Bros, 1946):

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousand fold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine: the special pleading of selfish interests.

Secondly, from "Po: Beyond Yes and No" by Edward de Bono (Penguin, 1973):

It is bad enough when an idea resists change because it cannot be faulted...but it is worse than that. Often it is impossible to change an idea that can be faulted. This is because ideas are affirmed not simply on logical grounds but also on emotional grounds.

A person who is determined to believe in flying saucers travels to Norway to examine the wreck of a saucer that is said to have crashed there. If he finds nothing, then clearly the wreckage has been removed by the government in order to pretend it never happened. If he finds the wreckage of an ordinary plane, then clearly the government has substituted the plane deliberately to mislead the investigators. So lack of actual evidence for the flying saucer is actually evidence of a conspiracy to hush it up and hence evidence for the saucers, since you do not hush up something which is not true.

And finally, from George Orwell's proposed preface to "Animal Farm" (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1945):

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you arc not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals.

I wonder how much the Internet (from email to www to social networks) is really changing how science is actually done? It's tempting to think of scientists as dispassionate, curious and above all free people, with an absolute respect for the scientific method. But of course scientists are just human beings: brilliant, quirky, insightful, curious and perhaps slightly obsessive beings certainly, but also economic beings, political beings, emotional beings, scared beings, pay-the-mortgage beings. It was hard enough to join up apparently unrelated dots when it was possible to conduct research with no foreseeable economic benefit, but in the modern world where research seems to be driven more by questions of funding than by genuine scientific curiosity, the crucial dots that need to be joined might not even be visible, having been dismissed as "curiosities" by the scientific literature.

One Comment

Interesting phys.org article and commentary, Chris.

I had an instructor about half year ago that said scientists, despite being among the proudest of their work, are the worst at telling people about it. They're all determined to write their papers in a non-boasting sort of way which can take away the exciting color and feeling of the article. And often, it requires vocabulary that's challenging for the layman (read: investors, capitalists) to fully see the potential.

Websites like plos.org and phys.org have made great strides in giving scientists a platform. Of course there has always been Science magazine but the freely distributed, access any time any where model encourages investigation. Life Technologies has a genome sequencing technology called Ion Torrent. We had a representative come talk to us about all the sequencing technologies that were available (not just Life's), but he told us how the Ion Torrent was better. Apparently they have an Ion Bus which makes its rounds on the east coast sometimes giving out information packets and free stuff like wrist bands. They are educating the general public in a friendly, easy-to-interface-with way. The odds that the guy standing outside Starbucks is in an industry where knowing about the new Ion Torrent will make an immediate difference is low, but I like the approach. I think scientists should do this more often. After all, a lot of projects like these are funded by taxpayer money: you have a duty to educate them on the results of their purchase. How do you expect them to vote for the next fundraiser?

Sarah Palin is a fine example: “And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like …” she grinned, shaking her head side to side, her voice rising to a facetious pitch “… fruit fly research in Paris, France.” Feeling in tune with the guys in her audience, she added, “I kid you not.”

- Kevin Berger, Salon.com

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