Author takes swipe at scientific elite (3/6/2004)

The following article reports a 'a rare example of a science writer biting the hand that feeds him'.  The former editor of New sientist has criticised the current generation of scientists for a complacent failure to countenance the fact that 'what [they] say now is likely to be false'. He also attacks peer review, describing it as 'self-appointed clubs that claim to be experts' but actually perpetrate 'systematic resistance' to  new findings that might upset existing orthodoxies. However, Calder appears to have failed to explore the way in which massive financial interests play into this scenario - see, for instance, Bioscience Warfare: Big Biotech has silenced majority of scientists working on risk. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3664

We now have a situation where the whole climate of what should be open and independent scientific research undertaken at independent places of learning has simply gone.

Author takes swipe at scientific elite
Researchers forget that making errors is path to knowledge
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Thursday June 3, 2004
The Guardian

The upper echelons of the scientific community were yesterday accused of "usually being wrong" and guilty of "a systematic resistance to discovery", at the Guardian Hay book festival.

The attack came from Nigel Calder, author of Magic Universe: the Oxford guide to modern science, a tome weighing more than the latest Harry Potter book and shortlisted for the 2003 Aventis science book awards. Calder, whose swipe was a rare example of a science writer biting the hand that feeds him, was among the first journalists to work on New Scientist magazine when it was launched in the mid-1950s and went on to become its editor.

During his talk at the festival, Calder criticised leading scientists for having forgotten that big new scientific discoveries, which remain to be uncovered in many fields, can overturn widely held beliefs.

"In any branch of science there are only two possibilities. There is either nothing left to discover, in which case, why work on it, or there are big discoveries yet to be made, in which case, what the scientists say now is likely to be false," he said. "The problem is, the top scientists seem to have forgotten that."

The result is a generation of scientists who have become a little too confident that their understanding of the world is more scientifically accurate than it will be proved to be.

Historically, some of the biggest brains have been off the mark with some of their theories. For everything he got right, Einstein maintained a quirk of physics known as quantum entanglement - where information seemingly travels instantaneously from one particle to another, regardless of how far apart they are - was impossible. Scientists have since proved him wrong.

The accusations went further than simply knocking scientists' confidence in their understanding of the world, though. Calder said the use of peer review, where established scientists decide what research gets published, and the use of review panels that hold the purse strings of university research, were exclusive and had the effect of hindering rather than encouraging new discoveries.

"It amounts to a systematic resistance to discovery," he said. Such "self-appointed clubs that claim to be experts" supported the publication and funding of mainstream work, rather than innovative science.

He said scientists were wilfully resisting pursuing certain lines of inquiry because they could upset the balance of science research. "The vast number of scientists are not even trying to do research that could lead to a Nobel prize because they don't want to rock the boat."

In other words, maverick researchers, by making discoveries that undermine the work being pursued by the scientific elite, could cause ripples many at the top would rather not witness. "The top people may be toppled from their perches and people may lose their jobs," Calder said.

Frank Close, the Oxford University astronomer and vice-president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said while scientists were far from trying to hinder new discoveries, it was possible review panels might at times be too conservative.

"Are there blue skies research projects that are not getting funded, but should be? Are we being too conservative? There's always a chance of that, though I've not seen any convincing examples," he said. "And you have to bear in mind, this is taxpayers' money."

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