Not every maverick is a new Galileo

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

One of the hardest questions a science commentator faces, Matt Ridley says, is when to take a heretic seriously:

It’s tempting for established scientists to use arguments from authority to dismiss reasonable challenges, but not every maverick is a new Galileo. As the astronomer Carl Sagan once put it, “Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea and hypothesis—which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism—especially rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested—and you’re not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science.” In other words, as some wit once put it, don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Peer review is supposed to be the device that guides us away from unreliable heretics. A scientific result is only reliable when reputable scholars have given it their approval. Dr. Yan’s report has not been peer reviewed. But in recent years, peer review’s reputation has been tarnished by a series of scandals. The Surgisphere study was peer reviewed, as was the study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, hero of the anti-vaccine movement, claiming that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) caused autism. Investigations show that peer review is often perfunctory rather than thorough; often exploited by chums to help each other; and frequently used by gatekeepers to exclude and extinguish legitimate minority scientific opinions in a field.

Herbert Ayres, an expert in operations research, summarized the problem well several decades ago: “As a referee of a paper that threatens to disrupt his life, [a professor] is in a conflict-of-interest position, pure and simple. Unless we’re convinced that he, we, and all our friends who referee have integrity in the upper fifth percentile of those who have so far qualified for sainthood, it is beyond naive to believe that censorship does not occur.” Rosalyn Yalow, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, was fond of displaying the letter she received in 1955 from the Journal of Clinical Investigation noting that the reviewers were “particularly emphatic in rejecting” her paper.

The health of science depends on tolerating, even encouraging, at least some disagreement. In practice, science is prevented from turning into religion not by asking scientists to challenge their own theories but by getting them to challenge each other, sometimes with gusto. Where science becomes political, as in climate change and Covid-19, this diversity of opinion is sometimes extinguished in the pursuit of a consensus to present to a politician or a press conference, and to deny the oxygen of publicity to cranks. This year has driven home as never before the message that there is no such thing as “the science”; there are different scientific views on how to suppress the virus.


  1. A Texan says:

    I’ve worked in academia as a staff person in an engineering college. Most of them with Phd’s are pretty stupid at this point. Peer review is a sad joke which often means for the thousands of articles that get published you are probably lucky if the peer review committee actually bothered to read it.

  2. Bomag says:

    “Most of them with PhD’s are pretty stupid at this point.”

    I’m not of this view, but I’ll say they are smart people poorly deployed: much of academia is set up to select for conformity.

    K, PhD today is almost totally a jobs program with a side gig of leftist indoctrination.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    The only real science is technology. The only real knowledge is what works. The only real philosophy is empiricism-pragmatism-consequentialism.

    All the rest is just talk.

  4. A Texan says:

    The other issue is the huge glut of Phd’s in all fields and that includes STEM. University enrollment will drop over within the decade since there are less young population. There is nothing for these people to do, yet more are created. I would guess there is more demand for trades/two year technical and maybe some vocational than a four year degree.

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    There are two related problems.

    The first is that anonymous peer review is a broken process. Anyone who has been closely involved in the process knows that most peer reviews are perfunctory wastes of time. They also know that peer reviewers are given impossibly tight deadlines to do a thorough review, even if they wanted to and had the required skills.

    The solution in these on-line days would be a fully-attributed public review system, probably analogous to Amazon book reviews. Publish the paper, and then dynamically append all reviews by anyone who is prepared to stand up in public and put his name to his comments.

    The second problem is “Publish or Perish” in the academic world, which leads to a proliferation of not-very-useful papers. That is a more difficult problem to deal with. The solution probably begins with abolishing tenure. Once in a generation, there may be an Einstein who deserves tenure — for the rest, 3-year renewable contracts would help to keep academics on their toes and make universities a less comfortable environment for Far Left activists.

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