Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Openness and scientific discovery

posted by Rod Dreher

A colleague mentioned the other day that younger scientists may fear getting involved with certain kinds of potentially fruitful research because they risk hurting their careers by flirting with what is now scientific heterodoxy. My colleague’s concern is that science itself could be missing out on new discoveries because of professional pressure, real or imagined, on younger scientists to conform to established ideas, for fear of suffering in their careers. That brought to mind a passage from “The Quantum and the Lotus,” a book-length dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who was a geneticist before leaving science to become a monk, and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a University of Virginia astronomer. Excerpt:
Matthieu: Einstein also said, “On principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”
Trinh: Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, had a revealing story to tell about that. During his travels he spent a whole day on a riverbank and noticed nothing special, nothing but pebbles and water. Eleven years later he returned to the same spot, but now, owing to his subsequent studies, he was expecting to find evidence of an ancient glacier. Sure enough, this time, the evidence was blindingly obvious. Not even an extinct volcano could have left more visible traces of its past activity than this ancient glacier. Darwin only found what he was looking for when he knew what he was looking for. There are countless similar examples.
M.: Scientists also tend to fit new facts into preexisting conceptual models and avoid calling into question the fundamental precepts of the field they’re working in.
T.: Yes, but, that said, sometimes when new facts turn up that don’t fit into an existing framework, a scientific revolution, or paradigm shift, is kicked off. This also happens when geniuses spot connections between phenomena that were previously thought to be separate. Norwood Russell Hanson, a historian of science, remarked, “The paradigm observer is not the man who sees and reports what all normal observers see and report, but the man who sees in the familiar objects what no one else has seen before.” Newton understood gravity when he saw the link between an apple falling to the ground and the motion of the Moon aroudn the Earth. Relativity became clear to Einstein when he grasped the interconnection between time and space. But such imaginative achievements don’t happen purely by chance. They result from years of learning and thought.



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Cecelia

posted July 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm


well ya know – tenure is supposed to prevent all this – but even if tenure leaves one free to pursue less fashionable lines of inquiry – you still need funding. It also seems unlikely to me that having spent years as a grad student and then years striving for that tenure you are unlikely to abandon the fashionable lines of inquiry you had to pursue as a grad student and pre tenure researcher. So we have to rely on the oddballs to come up with those paradigm changing discoveries.
In my own field it is interesting that some paradigm changers came from the ranks of woman – who represented in their numbers – a new group. Perhaps as a new group they were less shackled to old ways of seeing things and certainly more motivated to “prove” themselves.



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Peterk

posted July 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm


Peer review, which is supposed to filter out bullsh*t, is equally effective at filtering out criticism of bullsh*t.” Mark Kleiman
http://www.samefacts.com/2010/07/academic-labor-market/toward-a-general-theory-of-academic-b-s/



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??o?s u?? - ?? u?o?

posted July 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm


?l?u??????p ?l???l ? s?u??? ?? ?ool o? ???? ?sn? no? s??????os



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the stupid Chris

posted July 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm


john e,
kewl.
what’s the code on that?



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm


Chris, couldn’t be simpler: www . typeupsidedown . com



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polistra

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:00 pm


Tenure may in theory leave you free to pursue slight variations on orthodoxy, but the grueling process of achieving tenure cultivates a strong habit of agreeing with your advisors … and peer review guarantees that heterodox beliefs won’t be able to contaminate others. If you’ve made it to tenure, it’s highly unlikely that you have any rebellious tendencies.
Real heterodoxy is no longer possible within the academy. It comes from independent operators, sometimes pure outsiders, sometimes disgruntled former insiders.
And in fact, it’s usually been that way. Edison and Ford didn’t even finish elementary school; Einstein was a patent clerk, not a professor; Bill Gates didn’t finish college.



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the stupid Chris

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:13 pm


?d?? ??? ?o? s?u??? ?u?o?



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MH

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:38 pm


I read somewhere that scientific discovery tends to be generational. The issue is that when a new insight arises (like plate tectonics) it tends to be treated as heterodox non-sense by the establishment. It take a while for resistance to wear down and it is usually in the younger generation first.
Another example would be Einstein and Relativity. He won his Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect, not his bigger discovery! He was also outside the system and not in academia, so it wasn’t a risk to his career to pursue the idea.
Kudos has to go to Max Planck for being open enough to recognize the significance of Einstein’s ideas as he was in the establishment.



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Jon

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:23 am


Spexual Relativity solved some outstanding problems which no one had a clue about. Hence, it was received without too many objections.
What is not well-received (even if it happens to be right) is a challenge to an existing paradigm which everyone thinks is a complete explanation on things and never mind the couple of loose endsd.



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Lord Karth

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:43 am


polistra @ 7:00 PM writes:
“Tenure may in theory leave you free to pursue slight variations on orthodoxy, but the grueling process of achieving tenure cultivates a strong habit of agreeing with your advisors … and peer review guarantees that heterodox beliefs won’t be able to contaminate others. If you’ve made it to tenure, it’s highly unlikely that you have any rebellious tendencies.”
“Catering to your mentors is necessary in any subject not governed by mathematics”—R. Heinlein.
Your servant,
Lord Karth
captcha poetry: “observe inhibitors”. Spooky. Maybe the Matrix is coming to life….



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Franklin Evans

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:00 am


Cecelia and polistra nailed it, IMO. I’ll just add (when has Franklin not had something to add?) that a nearly-deceased equine is still twitching: We are describing and criticizing humans and human politicking, not Science as She Is Defined. Grant funding is just the pretty sister of the two-headed monster, because corporate profits (educational institutions included in that moniker) are the goal, and heterodoxy is the slowest road to profit except for that very rare exceptional bit of luck.



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Dan Berger

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:43 am


What is not well-received (even if it happens to be right) is a challenge to an existing paradigm which everyone thinks is a complete explanation on things and never mind the couple of loose endsd. Everybody likes to quote Arthur C. Clarke: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. But the reality is that the vast majority of challenges to paradigms are easy to refute. To quote Carl Sagan: They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.



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Argon

posted July 19, 2010 at 11:24 am


I agree w/ Dan Berger. Paradigm shifting research happens much more rarely that most people imagine and that’s not because of a lack of will, but more a lack of good ideas. There are far more quack ideas than groundshifting developments.
I’ve seen paradigms change in my field. Most are related to really good work (e.g. RNA catalysis: the proposal was backed up by excellent and elegant experiments that were readily appreciated, Archea as a separate kingdom of life: bounced around for a bit but was conclusively established by multiple lines of evidence, the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts: a proposal made well in advance of conclusive evidence but when the technology improved it was readily accepted).
As in most of science: data talks, BS walks. Most academic researchers keep one or two other ‘irons in the fire’ for potential exploratory work and future development. If you’ve got a pet idea, there are often ways of maintaining an investigation in the background until it shows promise.



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