The sterilization of science
The following is an op-ed piece that is about to appear in the next issue of The Quantum Times (which is not out yet). Since some of my readers do not read The Times, I am posting it here since I think it has a fairly general relevance to it.
The greatest professional complement I have ever received was from a former student who had taken my introductory physics course as part of the requirements for a life sciences degree (she is now a practicing nurse). At the end of my course, which is well-known for being hard, she told me that my physics course had taught her to question everything (her emphasis). Most physicists likely share this penchant for skepticism, at least to a degree. After all, the process of formulating a theory or carrying out an experiment involves constant revision, which naturally entails questioning our own results. As Mike Fortun and Herb Bernstein (yes, that Herb Bernstein) put it, science can be “messy” and the process of doing science is often simply an act of “muddling through.”
That said, two things recently caught my eye that deserve mention. The first was an excellent post by GQI Chair Dave Bacon on his blog The Quantum Pontiff concerning the paper review process. Dave writes,
Science is dynamic. Sometimes this means that science is wrong, sometimes it means that science is messy. Mostly it is very self-correcting, given the current state of knowledge. At any given time the body of science knows a lot, but could be overturned when new evidence comes in. What we produce through all of this, however, at the end of the day, are polished journal articles.
This is more than just an issue of transparency. As someone who has done a fair amount of research in the history of science, I have noticed that one of the things we have lost in the digital age is “rough notes.” For papers more than about thirty years old, notes – from scraps of paper to entire notebooks – frequently can be found in archives and private collections that detail the “messy” process of science. The other thing we have lost, particularly with the advent of e-mail, is written letters as a record. Some of the best ideas have come out of these letters (I cited several in my PhD thesis) and they often included hand-drawn diagrams, equations that were often easier to read, and other items not found in the limiting form of an e-mail.
We also, often individually (i.e. with no real consensus), place limits on the questions we think science can legitimately ask. While this may be necessary, it is, to some degree, arbitrary and can have the effect of quenching legitimate scientific progress. Combined with the issues I raised above, it is also quenching what could be legitimate scientific dialogue.
That brings up the second thing that caught my eye recently. A letter was forwarded to me this spring in which a Nobel Physics Laureate was disinvited to a conference in Italy due to their apparent interest in the “paranormal.” The letter goes on to say that “it would not be appropriate for someone with such research interests to attend a scientific conference.” While I agree that certain aspects of the paranormal do not belong at a scientific conference, where, precisely, do we draw the line? Would we disinvite the late Georges Lemaître, a student of Einstein and a father of modern cosmology, because he was a Jesuit priest and, as such, took vows that ostensibly implied his belief in transubstantiation, a rite he likely performed regularly? There was never any evidence that implied that the disinvited person would make their paranormal beliefs a centerpiece of conversation. Did Lemaître babble on about Catholic theology at cosmology conferences?
Both these points beg the question of whether or not some of the founding papers in our own discipline would get published in a leading journal today. Bohr’s writing, for example, was notoriously philosophical (and some might say impenetrable).
The end result is that science, which should rise above such things, is increasingly being shaped by modern society rather than shaping modern society. The “culture wars” are forcing upon science a narrowing of purpose while the digital age is destroying its transparency and making its development appear black and white. More than simply unfortunate, this is dangerous.
Thus, I call on you to question everything, including your strongest beliefs, and be open and transparent about it. Science is beautiful and powerful but it isn’t perfect. We should stop pretending it is.