13 November 2011

Science: Heretics as Heroes & Why Peer Review is F*cked Up

The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer. Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was wrong.

"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

The Australian medical scientist Barry Marshall, who hypothesized that a bacterial infection causes stomach ulcers, received similar treatment and was taken seriously only when he deliberately infected himself, then cured himself with antibiotics in 1984. Eventually, he too won the Nobel Prize.

Drs. Shechtman and Marshall are on a distinguished list. Galileo, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein all had to run the gauntlet of conventional wisdom in the scientific establishment. For a profession whose very product is new knowledge, science seems strangely resistant to novelty. _MattRidley in GWPF
There are good reasons why politically powerful scientists tend to disparage the ideas promoted by the up and coming heretics: The heretics are rocking the boat! Institutions evolve flows of money, power, and influence over time. Just like political dictators, those scientists who occupy the upper echelon positions of power will constantly survey the lower reaches, looking for possible threats to their influence.

One of the most useful methods that has evolved to keep the upstart revolutionaries in their places, is the peer-review process in scientific publishing. Judith Curry has collected a number of ways in which peer review keeps the uppity heretics in their place:
...peer review as practiced in the 21st century biomedical research poisons science. It is conservative, cumbersome, capricious and intrusive. It slows down the communication of new ideas and discoveries, while failing to accomplish most of what it purports to do. And, worst of all, the mythical veneer of peer review has created the perception that a handful of journals stand as gatekeepers of success in science, ceding undue power to them, and thereby stifling innovation in scientific communication.

...1) The process takes a really long time....

...2) The system is not very good at what it purports to do....

...Reviewers are biased by personal motives...

... _Much more at_JudithCurry_via_GWPF
Professor Curry goes on to compare various open access processes for publication and review, with the traditional peer-review process as it is practised by Science, Nature, PNAS, and the other guardians of the orthodoxy.

Modern science is badly inbred and constipated in areas of funding, review, publishing, tenure, and scientific organisations and conferences. Being an intelligent and scrupulous heretic in today's world is a lesson in institutional corruption in high places.

But that is no reason to give up or sell out. In the world of "new media," there are growing numbers of ways to get one's information out to those who really matter, in the long run. Explore your options and take your best shot.


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Blogger neil craig said...

There is an OECD report that found a negative correlation between government funding of science and achievement. Clearly peer review and established bureaucracies are a way by which those at the top can divert government money towards what we might consider the established ideas and thus reduce original research. Or siometimes, as with CAGW, government eliminates the middle man and decides what may be "discovered" by funding only the amenable.

However I do not conclude from that, as some do, that government should not fund any research - technological progress is so important to society that almost nothing else is more deserving of funding - but that such funding should, almost entirely, go through X-Prizes rather thasn through grants. Thus rewarding & encouraging achievement rather than box ticking.

I suspect the reason the state much prefers grants is that it gives them the power of patronage. The state's interests are not ours & vice versa.

Monday, 14 November, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Good points, thanks.

US President Obama's policy has been the use of government funding to reward his crony political supporters. There is no sign that he is likely to change his ways, unless forced to do so.

Monday, 14 November, 2011  

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