The inertia of science

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Some of the greatest scientific advances have been made by maverick scientists; people who go off on tangents despite widely accepted existing paradigms. A paradigm is essentially an accepted framework that directs research to advance by an accumulation of solutions to problems. According to Thomas Kuhn, normal science operates within this framework. From time to time, a revolution may occur, which shifts the paradigm to create a more or less different framework. In other words, a paradigm describes our current understanding of something. But how do paradigms emerge? Most of the time they emerge through the accumulation of evidence through research carried out by scientists working within the relevant discipline. A proposal of a paradigm shift initially tends to be met with resistance, however, and acceptance is generally only the result of many years of research attempting to either prove or falsify the new idea. My first exposure to how this process can work was as an undergraduate student at the University of Umeå, Sweden, when I attended a lecture by a Nobel Laureate from a University in California. I can’t remember the name of the person (it was 45 years ago and these days I can’t remember names at all), but he was a brain neurophysiologist.  In his lecture, he stated that he habitually used to make controversial statements, knowing that it would cause a flurry of research to prove him wrong. He also said that he didn’t really care if he was right or wrong, but that it was a way to generate evidence that he couldn’t do on his own. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was also rejected, most famously in the German book “Hundert autoren gegen Einstein” (100 authors against Einstein). When asked about this book, Einstein responded “Why 100? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!”

Image result for albert einstein wikipedia

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.

Sometimes paradigms are not based on accumulated evidence, however, but on opinions by highly regarded scientists expressing opinions that are accepted, perhaps because they make intuitive sense. An example from my own field is the widely held “truth” that bark beetle outbreaks invariably lead to forest fires. In this case, it appears that no empirical evidence was present to support this idea, and research over the past 10-20 years have shown that it is far from certain that bark beetle-caused mortality is followed by forest fire. There is no question that an accumulation of fuel will affect the progression of a forest fire once it occurs, but the prevalent paradigm while I was going through my education was that there was a cause and effect between bark beetles and the occurrence of fire.

An example is the theory of continental drift in the early twentieth century by Alfred Wegener https://www.livescience.com/37529-continental-drift.html . The problem for Wegener was that he lacked a mechanism by which his theory would work. Consequently, the idea met with considerable resistance and even ridicule. Opponents held fast to the idea that mountain chains on earth had been formed by continental contraction caused by the cooling of the earth, and that the continents were fixed in place. Fortunately, some scientists supported the idea, but it took almost 50 years, during which evidence supporting some of Wegener’s theory was collected and the idea of plate tectonics was put forth, before Princeton geologist Harry Hess proposed a mechanism in support of the idea that continents moved around. Thus, Wegener’s idea now lives on as the Theory of Plate Tectonics.

The motivation for writing this blog came from another example, much closer to my own field of study. In addition, I had thought about the issue on numerous occasions when research proposals or manuscripts submitted for publication were rejected simply because “that is not how it works”. The study that served as the ultimate trigger came via a book recommended to me by a colleague, “And no birds sing” by Mark Jaffe (not to be confused with “And no birds sang” by Farley Mowat). The book tells the story of then

Brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) (8387580552).jpg

Brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis), Photo by Pavel Kirillov.  CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46853510

graduate student Julie Savidge (now a professor at Colorado State University), and her struggles to convince the establishment that the invasive Brown Tree Snake, Boiga irregularis, was the key culprit in the elimination of Guam bird species. One key opponent was a well-respected ornithologist, who rejected her findings on the basis that there was no precedence for a snake impacting fauna in this manner, and specifically, the brown tree snake was not known to have had any significant impact elsewhere. To make a long story short (read Jaffe’s book if you want the long version), Julie stuck to her guns and produced enough evidence to convert the doubters. Her persistence likely saved a few of the species of endemic Guam birds that were headed for certain extinction. The fight against the invasive snake carries on, e.g., https://www.guampdn.com/story/news/2017/07/30/drug-laced-mice-used-combat-brown-tree-snake/507382001/.

I was not a paradigm shifter, but still encountered some of the inertia of science as an author and editor. Criticism is obviously a good thing, and our peer review system improves science by exposing logical or methodological flaws. Outright rejection of ideas without a substantive argument to do so is not good, however. Many significant leaps forward in science have resulted from someone thinking “outside the box”. We need to keep an open mind, recognizing that knowledge is never complete and often context dependent. Sometimes we simply have it wrong, so there is always more to learn.

About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
This entry was posted in Opinion, Science, Scientists and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The inertia of science

  1. Nice post. Your story about the Nobel laureate is interesting – I’ve heard similar arguments about the insect apocalypse hype, ‘who cares if it’s wrong if it gets people doing more research’. Logical point, but is this really what science should be? Lots of food for thought, thanks!

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    • Thanks for that comment, Manu! You are absolutely right – that should not be how science works and I should have stated that. It is a form of gaming the system, I guess, and I have been told of other less than honourable examples in the conrtext of grant application. Having said that, it seems to me that controversy often leads to progress by forcing discussion that people would otherwise avoid because of their fidelity to one paradigm or another. I am sure that varies with discipline, however. Fortunately for me, entomologists tend to be a discipline where sharing is the norm, allowing progress without resorting to underhanded tactics.

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