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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Are scientists blocking their own progress? by Robert Gebelhoff

Follow on Twitter as @RobertGebelhoff
"The case for not trusting science." reports Robert Gebelhoff, contributes to The Washington Post's Opinions section.
Some of the world’s notable physicists are pictured at the fifth Solvay International Conference, in 1927 in Brussels.
Photo: Washington Post

Max Planck won a Nobel prize for his revolutionary work in quantum mechanics, but it was his interest in the philosophy of science that led to what is now called “Planck’s Principle.”

Planck argued that science was an evolving system of thought which changes slowly over time, fueled by the deaths of old ideas. As he wrote in his 1968 autobiography: “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.”

His insight poses a jarring question: Is our understanding of the world based in pure objective reason, or are the theories that underpin it shaped by generational biases? Do our most famous thinkers actually block new ideas from gaining ground?

[Many scientific studies can’t be replicated. That’s a problem.]

A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that fame does play a significant role in deciding when and whether new scientific ideas can gain traction. When a prominent scientist dies, the paper’s authors found, the number of articles published by his or her collaborators tends to fall “precipitously” in the years following the death — those supporters tend not to continue advocating for a once-famous scientist’s ideas once the scientist is gone.

At the same time, the number of research articles written by other scientists including those with opposing ideas increases by 8 percent on average, implying that the work of these scientists had been stifled before, but that after the death of a ubiquitous figure, the field becomes more open to new ideas. The study also found that these new articles are less likely to cite previous research and are more likely to be cited by others in the field. Death signifies a changing of the guard — the study illustrates the scramble to fill an intellectual void with new ideas and scientific inquiry. 

Our instinct is often to view science as a concrete tower, growing ever upward and built upon the immovable foundations of earlier pioneers.  Sir Isaac Newton famously characterized this as “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The reality, however, seems to suggest that scientific thought is less stable than we think. 

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
50th Anniversary Edition.

Mid-20th century philosopher Thomas Kuhn was among the first to come to this conclusion, in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” He argued that scientific theories appeared in punctuated “paradigm shifts,” in which the underlying assumptions of a field are questioned and eventually overthrown. 

The famous historical example is astronomy: Our understanding of the universe shifted from Ptolemy, who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, to Copernicus, who argued that it was the sun. Later, the Copernican reign was overthrown by Brahe, and again by Kepler, Galileo, Newton and so on.

Kuhn’s book was, to some extent, a paradigm shift in its own right. According to his logic, commonly held notions in science were bound to change and become outdated. What we believe today will tomorrow be revised, rewritten and in the most extreme cases ridiculed.
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Source: Washington Post