09 August 2010

Originality and Science

One probably-final point to come out of the Lysenkoism discussion of the previous two posts:

Yesterday I admiringly referred to Richard Feynman's quote

I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists

As I said, that is a key part of cutting out the cascade of distrust that can occur when science becomes politically sensitive.

The problem is that that was an easy thing for Feynman to say, because Feynman was a flamboyantly insane genius, and the last thing he ever had to fear was being ignored. The situation is rather different for one graduate student or new PhD among twenty aiming for the same grant-funded research post. In that position, playing down the significance or certainty of one's own work is a ticket to the dole queue.

And the density of competition is astonishing. There was a piece in Nature a couple of years back, on the limitations of fMRI, that pointed out that from 2007-2008 there have been eight peer-reviewed papers published involving fMRI per day - 19,000 since 1991. "About 43% of papers expore functional localization and/or cognitive anatomy associated with some cognitive task or stimulus". Thousands upon thousands of papers, each searching for the little piece of originality that will give them importance.

However, this torrent of research demonstrates a solution as well as a problem. I wrote yesterday that "it is ... impractical to replicate every experiment, confirm every observation, check every calculation". Clearly, I was wrong. There is ample manpower in the science industry to double- and triple-check important results, but the system does not value the work highly enough for it to actually get done. Only original work actually merits funding.

That is a widespread problem in non-commercial fields, most obvious in the arts. In commercial arts, most artists make small variations or combinations of existing products, just trying to be a little more attractive and entertainment. The minority who are truly original are highly valued, because they are providing material for the rest to refine or perfect. Indeed, I can think of no other distinction between "high" and "popular" art, but that high art always seeks to be original, and popular art isn't too bothered. In academic arts, the only valid work is to do something really new. The end result is a product that is always different, but never very good. In science, every new paper is original, but most of them are wrong.

I would assume that in the cases of both art and science, the original assumption was that the market worked well enough to perfect existing work, but that originality required help and subsidy. However, the subsidised sectors at length became isolated from the commercial, to the point that now there is no commercial sector relevant to the academic work being done, and the new stuff is being pumped out into a vacuum.

It seems obvious that it would be beneficial for science to move more slowly and carefully, but the academic system has evolved in a way that does not permit it. It would take a major shakeup to get the science establishment to start to value that caution.

No comments: