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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Elite scientists

Sackerson sent this interesting link about elite scientists and their tendency to retard the evolution of new ideas until they peg out.

Max Planck — the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who pioneered quantum theory — once said the following about scientific progress:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,     but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Shorter: Science is not immune to interpersonal bullshit. Scientists can be stubborn. They can use their gravitas to steamroll new ideas. Which means those new ideas often only prevail when older scientists die.

The piece goes on to demonstrate the validity of this claim via patterns in published work. It comes as no surprise of course. Scientists are human; they have families to support, mortgages to pay, status to earn and maintain.

To explain what is going on here we could adapt an idea from Wittgenstein – the distinction between symptoms and criteria. Acolytes may present the opinion of Celebrity Scientist as a criterion of valid science. Celebrity Scientist says X, therefore X must be scientifically valid. Celebrity Scientist has become a criterion of sound scientific opinion.

In reality Celebrity Scientist's opinion may not be a criterion of sound science at all. It may have been once upon a time, but perhaps other possibilities are emerging within Celebrity Scientist's field. Celebrity Scientist's opinion may have become a symptom of hierarchy, personal vanity and the inability to accept new thinking.

Confusing symptoms with criteria is very common. For example, is an Ofsted report a criterion of educational excellence or a symptom of educational malaise? Both perhaps. Symptoms and criteria are often mingled.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is another example. Widely known to be a misleading metric, GDP could be seen as a symptom of political mendacity rather than a criterion of economic health.

GDP purports to measure economic activity while largely divorcing itself from the quality, profitability, depth, breadth, improvement, advancement, and rationalization of goods and services provided.

UK general elections seem to have have become a symptom of democratic decline rather than a criterion of healthy democratic government. Which is why useful reform is unlikely.

One could go on and on because elites often confuse symptoms with criteria. Even elite scientists may find it useful once perched atop the greasy pole.


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Sackerson said...

Like that Wittgenstein distinction - pithy, food for thought.

Paddington said...

In defense of science, it is the one system that I can think of which is trying to root out its own errors. That's more than can be said for the average internal investigation group for the police, lawyers, industries, or governments.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - surprising widespread too. In many cases symptoms become criteria because they really are criteria, but in other cases they are not.

Paddington - yes there are quite a few current examples such as major retractions of scientific work. Psychologists had a recent upheaval over work which cannot be replicated. What we don't need are celebrity scientists who become too fond of their status, but the mass media want and attract them.