Conflicting opinion is what drives scientific advance

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When it comes to the public communication of scientific findings a further step down a well defined road wins easier acceptance than a deviation from the beaten track. Most academic research is therefore simply boring and eccentricity less tolerated. But any form of censorship encourages complacency and discourages innovation.

The Royal Society, Britain’s scientific establishment, has just released a report on public communication of scientific findings. Journalists in search of stories and scientists anxious for publicity and research funding issue early, oversimplified or downright misleading accounts of research. Unsubstantiated claims of a link between immunisation and autism have caused distress to millions of British parents. Korea’s progress in stem cell research seems to have been won at the expense of truth and ethics.

The Society’s answers are self-restraint and peer review. Peer review is the process by which professions review their own work. Articles submitted to journals receive critical assessment from referees experienced in the field. Peer review is a bulwark against cranks, crooks and incompetents. But too much reliance on peer review carries its own dangers. Every profession defines its own concept of excellence in inward-looking ways.

Successful academics learn how to trigger the buttons that win the approval of referees. The physicist, Alan Sokal, demonstrated this by the submission of a spoof article to the cultural studies journal Social Text in 1996. The content was nonsense, but the form and jargon corresponded so closely to reviewers’ expectations that the contribution was accepted. Professor Sokal’s purpose was to demonstrate that standards were lower and more subjective in softer subjects than in more scientific ones and, while he was right, the problem identified was more general. All subjects, from architecture to physics, from literary criticism to economics, develop what Thomas Kuhn called paradigms – assumptions common to all practitioners and assumed to represent universal truth until a new paradigm displaces the old.

A further step down a well defined road wins easier acceptance than a deviation from the beaten track. Most academic research is therefore boring, and more so as scholarship has become more professional, eccentricity less tolerated and peer review multiplied through processes of grant awards and research assessment. The latest idea in Britain is to make these processes routine by shifting from the costly and fallible exercise of subjective judgment to a cheaper and objective system of quantitative metrics. This can only aggravate the problems.

Big advances come through the paradigm shifts and peer review makes this difficult. The line between the crank and the genius is sometimes a fine one and may only be apparent after time has elapsed. Many Nobel Prize winners had difficulty securing early recognition. The world of today favours the competent professional – as judged by the standards of other competent professionals. In a sense this self-reference is right: the people to decide whether astrology is good astrology are other astrologers. But they are not the people to decide whether astrology itself is any good. Judgment of the rigour and relevance of professional standards and scholarly research can never be left to professionals and scholars alone.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, an elegant suspension bridge in Washington State, carried traffic for four months in 1940. In a high wind, the flat deck acquired a beautiful wave pattern. The oscillations grew larger and larger until the roadway finally disintegrated into Puget Sound.

The trade newspaper, Engineering News-Record, was forced to retract its suggestion that the designer, Leon Moisseiff, might have been responsible. The editors apologised for any inference drawn by “the casual reader” that “the modern bridge engineer was remiss”.

But the perspective of “the casual reader”, though not a substitute for peer review, is as essential as the contribution of the little boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. Any form of censorship, including self-censorship and censorship by fellow professionals, encourages complacency and discourages innovation. The history of modern scholarship is that, more slowly than we would wish, truth and new knowledge emerge only from a cacophony of conflicting opinions.

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