Thursday, July 11, 2013

Challenging dogmatic science

I am back from Europe after a brief visit to a couple institutions at which I am applying for a post-doc position. The trip was brief, taxing, and very informative. I'll try to write about the experience when I have the time. Overall, I'm glad to be back and set on finishing my dissertation. I only hope I've succeeded in obtaining a job from this trip!

On another note, I wanted to highlight a very nice paragraph that sums up a concern many have with some scientific fields. It comes from an article entitled "Thinking outside the simulation box" and appears in this month's issue of Nature Physics. Here it is:

One would have naively expected scientific activity to be open-minded to critical questioning of its architectural design, but the reality is that conservatism prevails within the modern academic setting. Orthodoxy with respect to mainstream scientific dogmas does not lead to extreme atrocities such as burning at the stake for heresy but it propagates other collective punishments, such as an unfair presentation of an innovative idea at conferences, bullying and drying up of resources for creative thinkers.
The author, Abraham Loeb, is arguing that too many cosmologists are concerned with building support for an existing paradigm, rather than challenging these paradigms or building new ones. One reason, he thinks, is that it is very difficult to build a career as junior scientists by challenging beliefs that are held true by members of academic job selection committees.

However, for science to remain healthy, scientists must challenge the assumptions and beliefs of their paradigm. It is too bad, in my mind, that the architecture of an academic career is setup to encourage scientists to avoid this line of thinking.

Note: I also very much liked the following excerpt.
Conceptual work is often undervalued in the minds of those who work on the details. A common misconception is that the truth will inevitably be revealed by working out the particulars. But this highlights the biggest blunder in the history of science: that the accumulation of details can be accommodated in any prevailing paradigm by tweaking and complicating the model. A classic example is Ptolemaic cosmology — a theory of epicycles for the motion of the Sun and planets around the Earth — which survived empirical scrutiny for longer than it deserved.