The Inertia of Scientific Thought: What would Thomas Gold say about Climategate?

Here is an excerpt from an article that Thomas Gold (May 22, 1920 – June 22, 2004) wrote that was published in Speculations in Science and Technology, Vol. 12 (1989), No. 4, p. 245-253. It is particularly apt today, given the egregious moral, ethical and legal violations that have come to light in the Climategate fiasco:

The Inertia of Scientific Thought

New ideas in science are not always right just because they are new. Nor are the old ideas always wrong just because they are old. A critical attitude is clearly required of every scientist. But what is required is to be equally critical to the old ideas as to the new. Whenever the established ideas are accepted uncritically, but conflicting new evidence is brushed aside and not reported because it does not fit, then that particular science is in deep trouble – and it has happened quite often in the historical past. If we look over the history of science, there are very long periods when the uncritical acceptance of the established ideas was a real hindrance to the pursuit of the new. Our period is not going to be all that different in that respect, I regret to say.

I want to discuss this danger and the various tendencies that seem to me to create it, or augment it. I can draw on personal experiences in my 40 years of work on various branches of science and also on many of the great controversies that have occurred in that same period.

I will start very naively by a definition of what a scientist is. He is a person who will judge a matter purely by its scientific merits. His judgment will be unaffected by the evaluation that he makes of the judgment that others would make. He will be unaffected by the historical evaluation of the subject. His judgment will depend only on the evidence as it stands at the present time. The way in which this came about is irrelevant for the scientific judgment; it is what we now know today that should determine his judgment. His judgment is unaffected by the perception of how it will be received by his peers and unaffected by how it will influence his standing, his financial position, his promotion – any of these personal matters. If the evidence appears to him to allow several different interpretations at that time, he will carry each one of those in his mind, and as new evidence comes along, he will submit each new item of evidence to each of the possible interpretations, until a definitive decision can be made. That is my naive definition of a scientist.

I may have reduced the number of those whom you think of as scientists very considerably by that definition. In fact, I may have reduced it to a null class. But, of course, we have to be realistic and realise that people have certain motivations. The motivation of curiosity is an important one, and I hope it is a very important one in most scientists minds. But I doubt that there are many scientists to whom the motivation of curiosity about nature would suffice to go through a lifetime of hard struggle to uncover new truths, if they had no other motivation that would drive them along that same path. If there was no question about appealing to one’s peers to be acknowledged, to have a reasonably comfortable existence, and so on, if none of this came into the picture, I doubt that many people would choose a life of science.

When the other motivations come into the act, of course, the judgment becomes cloudy, becomes different from the ideal one, from the scientific viewpoint, and that is where the main problem lies. What are the motivations? If there are motivations that vary from individual to individual, it would not matter all that much, because it would not drive the scientific community as much to some common, and possibly bad, judgment. But if there are motivations that many share, then, of course, that is another matter; then it may drive the whole scientific community in the field in the wrong direction. So, we must think: what are the communal judgment-clouding motivations? What is the effect of the sociological setting? Is our present day organisation of scientific work favourable or unfavourable in this respect? Are things getting worse, or are they getting better? That is the kind of thing we would like to know.

The pace of scientific work continues to accelerate, but the question is whether the pace of discovery will continue to accelerate. If we were driving in the wrong direction – in the direction where no new ideas can be accepted – then even if scientific work goes on, the progress would be stifled. I am not suggesting that we are in quite such a disastrous position, but on the other hand, I am not going to suggest that all is well.

What are the many factors that many people might share that go against the acceptance of scientifically valid new ideas? One obvious factor that has always been with us is the unwillingness to learn new things. Too many people think that what they learned in college or in the few years thereafter is all that there is to be learned, in the subject, and after that they are practitioners not having to learn anymore. Of course, especially in a period of fairly rapid evolution that is very much the wrong attitude; but unfortunately it is shared by many.

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(read the rest here ..)


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