File under: “Wrong shakeup sought”
Here, Laura J. Snyder (“Wanted: Another Scientific Revolution”, The Scientist , 2011-05-01) wants a new Breakfast Club of scientist philosophers:
Each of the four men was brilliant, self-assured, and possessed of the optimism of the age: Whewell, who later created the fields of mathematical economics and the science of the tides; Charles Babbage, a mathematical genius who would invent the prototype of the first modern computer; John Herschel, who mapped the skies of the Southern hemisphere and coinvented photography; and Richard Jones, a curate who went on to shape economic science. The four composed what I call the “Philosophical Breakfast Club,” also the title of my latest book, which chronicles the way they transformed the “man of science” into the professional scientist.
The thesis (and book, excerpt here) sounds very interesting. She flags one outcome:
One of the unintended consequences of the revolution wrought by the Philosophical Breakfast Club has been that the professional scientist is now less interested in, and perhaps less capable of, connecting with the broader public, sharing the new discoveries and theories that most excite the scientific community.
Isn’t the situation more like this? In the 19th century, proportionately more scientists were multi-talented geniuses. Today – principally due to the success of science – all sorts of competent but unexciting people can make a living in it.
Then there are the lecture room bores who, with respect to established truisms, are as incapable of doubt as they are of insight. But not short of a public address system. They all have jobs in science now.
We still have original thinkers, if achievement is evidence, but their voices typically drown in the less productive noise. Is this just the price of success? What shakeup would change it?
Note: Physicist Frank Tipler (an original thinker, to be sure) has some interesting thoughts on the problem of mediocrity in science, and the contribution peer review makes to it:
I first became aware of the importance that many non-elite scientists place on “peerreviewed” or “refereed” journals when Howard Van Till, a theistic evolutionist, said my book The Physics of Immortality was not worth taking seriously because the ideas it presented had never appeared in refereed journals. Actually, the ideas in that book had already appeared in refereed journals. The papers and the refereed journals wherein they appeared were listed at the beginning of my book. My key predictions of the top quark mass (confirmed) and the Higgs boson mass (still unknown) even appeared in the pages of Nature, the most prestigious refereed science journal in the world. But suppose Van Till had been correct and that my ideas had never been published in referred journals. Would he have been correct in saying that, in this case, the ideas need not be taken seriously?