In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn made one (among many) interesting point about the development of science. When discussing the discovery of the X-rays, he wrote:
“(X-rays) were greeted not only with surprise but with shock. (…) If Roentgen’s apparatus had produced X-rays, then a number of other experimentalists must for some time have been producing those rays without knowing it. Perhaps those rays, which might well have other unacknowledged sources too, were implicated in behavior previously explained without reference to them. At the very least, several sorts of long familiar apparatus would in the future have to be shielded with lead. Previously completed work on normal projects would now have to be done again because earlier scientists had failed to recognize and control a relevant variable.”
Normal science is about solving puzzles without putting in risk the stablished paradigm. This means that there is an intrinsic conservatism in science. It is a defense mechanism: imagine, you have been investigating some subject for 20 years, then comes a colleague proposing something that you never took into account and that possibly affects all the data you have been publishing for years. If this colleague is right, your work can be rendered useless and you may have to revise all your research to check for this new variable!
I don’t have any basis for what I will propose next. It’s just a gut feeling, but I think something else is happening today. Most of scientists are not afraid of this type of crisis anymore. On the contrary, they welcome it.
Earlier this year, Jeffrey Mogil and co-workers reported an extremely curious paper in Nature. They showed that the results of experiments with lab mice were dependent on whether the researcher was a man or woman. Short story even shorter, they discovered that mice were more afraid of men than of women, and that this fear affected their response to pain (which was the variable being tested).
If this finding is confirmed, imagine how many papers that never considered this variable will have to be revised; imagine how many theses overlooked how comfortable mice were with the gender of the PhD student.
But instead of being afraid of this anomaly and of the uncertain future, scientists are excited about these results.
People in Brazil use to say that
“the clown’s joy is to watch the circus on fire.” (“A alegria do palhaço é ver o circo pegar fogo.”)
This saying has always intrigued me. There is something of grim in this ephemeral joy: doesn’t the clown perceive that he will be unemployed in the next evening?
Scientists sound a bit like that clown nowadays. Different from Kuhn’s expected conservatism, they enjoy the new with some disregard for its implications.
I think there are two reasons for that: childish excitment and cynical opportunism.
1. Childish excitement
Isaac Newton is often quoted describing himself:
“like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
(Well, he probably never said nothing like that, but the quote is good anyway.)
Until few years ago, we thought that physics was a retired science. We were pretty sure that we knew all the pieces making the universe. The Higgs boson was a missing piece, but we knew it was there. It was just a matter of time (and money) to be found. Then, all that remained was to play with these pieces to solve routine puzzles.
All of the sudden, we have dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravitational waves. We are surrounded by things we have no idea what they are. And we’re loving it. (I can tell for myself, I truly am.) Now we know how an early XIX-century pre-Maxwell scientist felt, with all those spectra, radiations, and rays around; and without having any clue on what they were.
Sure, none of these weird stuff directly affects my research. But even if they did, I wouldn’t care. I’d just enjoy and I bet most of my colleagues would also do.
2. Cynical opportunism
George M. Cohan (I’ve no idea who he was) is quoted saying:
“I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.”
Different from the unemployed clown, if a paradigm change happens in your research area, you won’t get unemployed and your PhD title won’t be striped from you.
On the contrary, you even run the risk of getting more citations (from papers exemplifying how things used to be in the past). Moreover, you suddenly get a whole new field to explore and to write new papers (including those explaining what was wrong with your former ones).
And who would care? After all, you are even more productive than before.
While scientists oscillate between childish joy or cynical opportunism, science is profiting from a spirit of the time, prone to exploration, discovery, and revolutions.
We have, however, just to take care that the Ig Nobel won’t become more prestigious than the Nobel. Or as Kierkegaard put it in Either/Or:
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
- What do you think? Are scientists enjoying their ignorance, are they opportunists, or did I took it all wrong and they are still conservative?
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- The illustration is the Marnie Weber’s “The Great Circus Fire”.
- Did you note all green-italics in the text? They are all concepts Kuhn made popular in The Structure. If you didn’t read this book, don’t miss it.
- If you have opportunity, check Law & Order S04E16. It’s a fictional account of the dramatic consequences of the fight between old and new ideas in science.