Science and Conformity

I regularly notice people complaining about conformity in science. Generally, this complaint accompanies a narrative about how someone’s pet theory is ignored by scientists, who are inevitably accused of being slaves to government funding. From my experience, I feel that these complaints are unfounded. My thinking on this was influenced about 10 years ago by reading Schroedinger’s book Nature and the Greeks, and a book by Bertrand Russel (I wish I could remember which one). They can do the subject more justice than I. Nonetheless, I feel there is still a place for someone to defend conformity in science.

It is true that the big breakthroughs that we hear about in science often have at their center some giant of intellect and original thinking. When many of us think of scientists, we think of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Feynman, and (maybe) Watson and Crick. The problem is, the narratives commonly associated with these scientists often ignores the other great minds that surrounded them. Newton corresponded regularly Leibinz and other mutual friends, which almost certainly influenced their concurrent development of calculus. Einstein was surrounded by other physicists that recognized that Newton’s theories were incompatible with some key observations, and mathematicians who were able to introduce Einstein to the equations that he needed to translate his ideas into predictions.

Most striking is the discovery of DNA. We all probably know that Watson and Crick’s got credit, but how many of us know the name of the woman whose experimental work inspired the Nobel Prize winners’ model?

Science certainly has its heroes, but scientific progress is by no means driven by lone geniuses. The people above were geniuses, no doubt, but they were part of a broad and vibrant scientific community. Moreover, their brilliance was matched equally by their ability to convince their peers that they were correct.

The thing is, science is a collective enterprise. A scientific theory must produce predictions that can be verified by independent observers. This requires that other scientists be willing to accept (tentatively) some paradigm so that they can perform experiments.

Indeed, developing a new theory requires that a scientist understands where the old theory fails. Einstein and his peers had to understand that Newton’s theory of gravity worked well in many situations, predicting the trajectories of cannonballs, and the motions of the planets beyond Venus (Mercury, on the other hand, was one of the failures). Therefore, a key part of the success of Einstein’s theory was explaining how, in most cases, bodies could behave in the way predicted by Newton. Given the success that our major scientific theories have had in making predictions and producing technology, I am convinced that future breakthroughs will emerge by using those theories as working models, and continually testing their bounds.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories of big, dramatic breakthroughs. I would love to overturn preconceived notions, and find my way into the pantheon of the world’s great geniuses. I also would take great pleasure in hearing about the ideas that will arise that will and take us by surprise.

However, scientists have learned an enormous amount about the natural world in the last five centuries, and currently tens of thousands of people are working in physics, biology, chemistry and engineering. With that in mind, it seems likely that new knowledge will appear in smaller increments than it did in our heroic past. To use a quote also used by Newton, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Only now, there have been even more giants. Perhaps it is time to let go a bit of the dream that a super-human will come to deliver us our next big breakthrough.

Given the challenges we face as a society, should we put our resources in “big ideas” without good reason to think they will pan out? I think the status quo is working pretty well, because it acknowledges the collective nature of science (and presumably reality). Scientists get funded when they can make it seem plausible to other scientists that their ideas will bear some fruit. If a scientist lacks the perspective to explain why the old work was inadequate, and lacks the skill to convince others their new ideas are worth pursuing, I would claim that giving them money is little better than putting a load of chips on the green slot of a roulette wheel.

In other words, the geniuses have to understand that there are many things to which they should conform.