Jump to content

Why are scientists seemingly reluctant to accept new ideas?


Hypercube
 Share

Recommended Posts

I was debating with my uncle a little while ago, and it eventually culminated in him claiming that science is in many way like a religion (I blatantly disagree with that comparison, by the way), because when a scientific theory becomes widely accepted among the scientific community, it almost becomes scientific dogma, and anyone who proposes a radical new idea is rarely taken seriously because so many scientists will have staked their entire careers on the existing theory. I confess I found this claim to be quite disturbing, because it goes completely counter to everything I believe in about what scientists should do. What does everyone think about this claim? Does it have any truth to it?

 

In at least some cases it seems to be true. I remember back in 2010 when they announced the tentative discovery of GFAJ-1, the bacterium that supposedly incorporated arsenic into its DNA instead of phosphorus, that the scientist who published her findings almost immediately started receiving piles of jeering condescension from many scientists, and ultimately lost most of her credibility in the scientific community. I remember being extremely indignant by the stance that scientists were taking on this discovery. Admittedly, I do believe that she jumped the gun on announcing her discovery, made only worse by NASA blowing it way out of proportion the way they did, but still, she was just doing what scientists do, albeit somewhat prematurely. The exact same thing happened to the scientists who claimed (and they made it clear that is wasn't yet conclusive) to have discovered neutrinos traveling faster than light earlier this year. What should have been treated as potentially one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the history of physics was instead met with open contempt by a great many scientists even before their experiment could be reproduced. It's one thing to be skeptical, that is after all one of the defining attributes of all good scientists, but to openly go after scientists who propose new ideas like that just seems to go completely against everything I believe about scientists.

 

Does anyone have any opinions and/or rebukes to my argument? If I've missed the point here please let me know.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I was debating with my uncle a little while ago, and it eventually culminated in him claiming that science is in many way like a religion (I blatantly disagree with that comparison, by the way), because when a scientific theory becomes widely accepted among the scientific community, it almost becomes scientific dogma, and anyone who proposes a radical new idea is rarely taken seriously because so many scientists will have staked their entire careers on the existing theory. I confess I found this claim to be quite disturbing, because it goes completely counter to everything I believe in about what scientists should do. What does everyone think about this claim? Does it have any truth to it?

 

There has to be good reason why a new theory should be accepted as being good. The evidence needs to be there, or at the very least the reason why the existing theory needs changing has to be clear. For example, most of the claims against special relativity or quantum mechanics are based on misunderstanding the existing theory. The other motivation that appears a lot is philosophical reasoning rather than any holes in the standard theory.

 

...but to openly go after scientists who propose new ideas like that just seems to go completely against everything I believe about scientists.

 

Usually scientists go after ideas rather than the individuals involved. We all make mistakes and need to step up to the mark when we do.

 

Your example of faster than light neutrinos is a good one. The objections to faster than light neutrinos is deeply laid in the mathematical framework we know works well in describing nature. It could that been the case that neutrinos do travel faster than light, but this would need us to question what we know about established physics. Because of this, just about everyone though that there was some mistake here. This was proved to be the case.

 

So, quite generally anything that goes against what is established will be met with a lot of scrutiny. This needs to be the case as either something is wrong with the experiment/calculation or there is a huge discovery here.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

or at the very least the reason why the existing theory needs changing has to be clear.

 

And what if there is no existing theory ie the theory is completely new?

 

There is a long history of innovators being ridiculed or ignored,

 

Gallileo

Parsons

Noether

Wegner

Whittle

Flemming

Mandelbrot

Edited by studiot
Link to comment
Share on other sites

And what if there is no existing theory ie the theory is completely new?

 

There is a long history of innovators being ridiculed or ignored,

 

Gallileo

Parsons

Noether

Wegner

Whittle

Flemming

Mandelbrot

Galileo's work was accepted by scientists quite quickly. It was the church that took 400 years to accept that they had screwed up.

At least part of Noether's problems with acceptance were related to her sex and the view that society took. If anything, the fact that she was given teaching jobs at universities indicates that her work was recognised as brilliant at the time.

 

Do you mean Frank Whittle, of jet engine fame?

According to WIKI " During May 1948 Whittle received an ex-gratia award of £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors in recognition of his work on the jet engine, and two months later he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Military Division."

It seems the establishment accepted his ideas.

And so on.

It's fair to say that recognition isn't always as quick as it should be.

And sometimes the person dies before they get fully recognised

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_Franklin

but that doesn't just happen in science- ask Van Gogh

Link to comment
Share on other sites

And what if there is no existing theory ie the theory is completely new?

 

I don't know if there really are completely new theories proposed today.

 

Do you have examples here?

 

Paradigm shifting theories are themselves based on a mix of established physics at the time, experimental results and a lot of imagination.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Let us assume that ajb (whom I respect immensely) john cuthber and ecoli are scientists.

(And I am the devil's advocate)

 

Case proved M'lud.

 

You have all reacted exactly in the way deplored by the OP.

 

Let us look through my list.

 

Gallileo was threatened with torture by his own establishment.

 

Parsons was blackballed from the Admiralty, but was rich enough to force his view on recalcitrant admirals.

 

Noether was grudgingly allowed to be an unpaid 'assistant' under an assumed name.

 

Wegner was ridiculed for half a century- I'm not sure he lived to see his ideas into fuition.

 

Whittle was originally nearly discharged from the navy in the mid 20s for his jet engine which was revived in the late 40s

 

Flemming nearly threw out the historic samples

 

Mandelbrot - well where are the accolades he deserves for founding chaos theory?

 

As to the question of genuinely new discoveries.

 

1) Penecillin is a classic modern example

 

2) Magnetic reversals in the mid ocean ridge strata are another

 

3) The belousov - zhabotinski reaction is another

 

4) Chaotic action in pulmonary rhythms is another

 

5 Of course 'radio activity' was one in its day.

 

go well

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You're cherry picking your data studiot. How many 'scientific' ideas have been/are ridiculed and have been shown to be incorrect or otherwise useless? One only needs to browse through the speculation forums for evidence of that.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think the essence of the issue is that all new ideas are ridiculed at first but that the ones that are correct get accepted (in some cases ratehr slowly).

The alternative would be that new ideas were accepted immediately.

Now, we have seen on this site some remarkable ideas put forward.

Just think of the mess that science would be in if all the crackpot ideas were accepted.

 

It's a type 1 vs type 2 error problem.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_I_and_type_II_errors

 

And the odds of a new idea being true and useful are pretty thin so the boundary for accepting them is set very high.

 

 

Incidentally, if Studiot's list had been

Benveniste

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Benveniste

Blondlot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N_ray

and

Hahnemann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy

and

Fleischmann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_fusion

 

 

he could have made the same point.

All these people were ridiculed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The short answer is because the vast majority of ideas are wrong. Thus the bar for accepting a new idea must be high. Add to this basic aspects of human nature that will make people even more reluctant to give up what they thought was true.

 

Regarding the superluminal neutrinos — the scientists involved didn't claim their result was valid. They offered it as an anomaly and said they couldn't find their error. (and since it came down to a calibration that should have been done but wasn't, people resigned). Had they proposed it as a valid result it would have gotten ugly. That said, the people who offered up alternative explanations haven't offered retractions (or the retractions haven't gotten any attention), but they were criticized for their half-baked offerings. Which were wrong.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It is not necessary to ridicule new ideas in order to be skeptical.

 

They should be examined and discussed in a rational and science-like manner.

 

Yes the examples were just 'off the top of my head' and unfortunately are far from unique. Nor is the effect confined to science, again unfortunately.

 

Arguably the most brilliant and certainly the most successful warplane ever nearly didn't get off the drawing board, let alone the ground. Again it was only the deep pockets and persistent self confidence of the designer that it made it into the sky.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Um... Isn't 'ridicule', or at least reluctance to accept, part of how the scientific method works? We put ideas to the sword, repeatedly, and if they survive they are probably good ideas. For this to work you need people to take strong (unreasonably strong?) opposing views to the idea put forward.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, thank you, add#3 to the list.

So, it was you, and not part of the OP. 'nuff said.

 

Um... Isn't 'ridicule', or at least reluctance to accept, part of how the scientific method works? We put ideas to the sword, repeatedly, and if they survive they are probably good ideas. For this to work you need people to take strong (unreasonably strong?) opposing views to the idea put forward.

Yes, as I and others have stated. You need evidence to have an idea to be accepted. Once it is, the more evidence you have for it, the harder it's going to be to dislodge it. Ideas that lack evidence or mechanisms aren't going to be embraced, especially without showing how the status quo idea is incomplete or wrong.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Gallileo was threatened with torture by his own establishment.

But not by scientists. Do you have any evidence that his theories were ridiculed, rejected or ignored by fellow scientists?

 

Wegner was ridiculed for half a century- I'm not sure he lived to see his ideas into fuition.

Not correct. Wegner published his original paper in 1912. Arthur Holmes, one of the foremost geologists of his generation, supported the concept and published such support in 1926 or 1927. While the majority of geophysicists rejected the concept this wa primarily because of the absence of a viable mechanism.

 

Indeed, Wegner's theory, as detailed, has been disproven through the introduction of plate tectonics. The two theories have major differences. Strict Wegnerian continental drift has been rejected because it does not occur.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Also note that many of the instances you hear of today of a person being ridiculed for a 'discovery' is not about the person or, at least necessarily, the discovery. It is usually about someone saying they have evidence to support an idea without ever publishing their methodology. Susan Greenfiel's spiel about technology damaging the youth comes to mind. Or when an idea is refuted many times and the originator of the idea still pushes it, especially if it is done through non-scientific channels. An example of this is the anti-vaccination movement.

 

Besides that if a scientists can't handle criticism and don't want their ideas held up to sever scrutiny they probably shouldn't be in a scientific field anyway.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Didn't Kuhn cover all this in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

 

In this work, Kuhn challenged the then prevailing view of progress in "normal science". Scientific progress had been seen primarily as "development-by-accumulation" of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. During revolutions in science, the discovery of anomalies leads to a whole new paradigm that changes the rules of the game and the "map" directing new research, asks new questions of old data, and moves beyond the puzzle-solving of normal science.

 

For example, Kuhn's analysis of the Copernican Revolution emphasized that, in its beginning, it did not offer more accurate predictions of celestial events, such as planetary positions, than the Ptolemaic system, but instead appealed to some practitioners based on a promise of better, simpler, solutions that might be developed at some point in the future.

 

Kuhn used the word "paradigm" to refer to the core concepts of an ascendant revolution, and he thereby launched this word into widespread analogical use in the second half of the 20th century. Kuhn's insistence that a "paradigm shift" (a term coined by him) was a mélange of sociology, enthusiasm and scientific promise, but not a logically determinate procedure, caused an uproar in reaction to his work.

 

Kuhn addressed concerns in the 1969 postscript to the second edition. For some commentators it introduced a realistic humanism into the core of science while for others the nobility of science was tarnished by Kuhn's introduction of an irrational element into the heart of its greatest achievements.

source
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Kuhn's insistence that a "paradigm shift" (a term coined by him) was a mélange of sociology, enthusiasm and scientific promise, but not a logically determinate procedure, caused an uproar in reaction to his work.

 

Paradigm shift was a paradigm shift. That's so meta.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I remember back in 2010 when they announced the tentative discovery of GFAJ-1, the bacterium that supposedly incorporated arsenic into its DNA instead of phosphorus, that the scientist who published her findings almost immediately started receiving piles of jeering condescension from many scientists, and ultimately lost most of her credibility in the scientific community

 

That isn't actually how it went down. Immediately after the NASA lab's experiment was reported on, a bunch of other labs launched their own experiments trying to replicate the result under the conditions of the original experiment. Skepticism arose when none of them could - it turned out that GFAJ-1 probably can't scavenge arsenic to replace phosphate in it's DNA, but is really really good at scavenging trace amounts of phosphate in harsh, arsenic rich environments. It's not an example of a scientific breakthrough being ridiculed by the community, it's an example of a result being broadly overstated, then retracted when it didn't stand up to scrutiny.

 

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/66953/title/Bacterium_grows_with_arsenic

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6093/470.abstract

http://www.lefigaro.fr/assets/pdf/arsenic-edito.pdf

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm afraid that my response to the proposition that the scientific truth will eventually be found out is a cynical and tired comment: 'Bollocks!' In the real world, being in the right cliques, ass kissing and following the latest trend by the latest 'great man' of science seem to matter more in a grant application than someone who has an alternative theory for the same phenomenon. At least this was my experience as a research scientist...

 

What about considering studies that were suggesting a causation of smoking with cancer being squashed by influential scientists (funded by the smoking industry) as a mere correlation? The hypothetico deductive method seems to be littered with the bodies of the insouciant and unwitting.

 

 

Little began his work with mice, focused on inheritance, transplants, and grafts. He also was an assistant dean and secretary to the president. His most important research occurred at Harvard, including what some call his most brilliant work, "A Mendelian explanation for the inheritance of a trait that has apparently non-Mendelian characteristics"....

 

His last major post, from 1954 to 1969, was as the Scientific Director of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (renamed Council for Tobacco Research in 1964). In that role he was a leading scientific voice of the tobacco industry and oversaw a USD 1 million research budget that gave grants to hundreds of scientists. [1][2] In 1959 he refuted his earlier assertion, made as Director of the ACS, that inhaling fine particles is unhealthy, and stated that smoking does not cause lung cancer and is at most a minor contributing factor. [3]. A decade later he said, "there is no demonstrated causal relationship between smoking or any disease."[4] In keeping with his earlier research he believed that the main cause of cancer was genetic, not environmental.

 

 

Link

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.