Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rejection and Ridicule

Science Career section has a very nice article on what happens when you (i.e. a scientist) try to challenge a prevalent idea.

Not everyone who thinks they've made a game-changing discovery is right. Many -- perhaps most -- apparent breakthroughs are just wrong. Here, the input of peers brings to light inconsistencies in data or errors of interpretation. The process works best when scientists stand up -- with integrity, perseverance, and a certain degree of open-mindedness -- right up until it becomes clear that they're wrong.

But what if you're not wrong? Thick skin and persistence are keys to making the process play out well. Progress is made when good scientists keep working -- and keep supporting what they believe is true -- despite the criticism. Following are some coping strategies gleaned from our cohort of audacious scientists.

This is an important aspect in how science is done that a lot of the general public does not know. Certainly, when something new is presented that contradicts an current understanding, one EXPECTS a challenge, and one expects that the new idea or conclusion must have strong backing to survive. Even Einstein had to go through this rigorous process.

But when you read the article, keep a couple things in mind that are very clear:

1. These game-changing ideas were published in peer-reviewed journals. So crackpots who can't even get their "theory" into such a medium can't complain that the "system" will only publish papers that only follow the status quo. These are clear evidence to falsify such faulty claims.

2. That time and further refinement of evidence will eventually support you if you are correct. This is a crucial characteristic of a valid idea, whereby further studies will produce more evidence in favor of it, and will refine it even more. This is in contrast with "evidence" from pseudoscience where over time, the validity of its existence is under question.

Perhaps the best advice in the whole article can be summed up in this paragraph:

"At the end of the day, it's an empirical process," says David Botstein, the biologist at Princeton University who figured out how to map human genes, laying the foundation for the Human Genome Project. "If you disagree with conventional wisdom and the data are on your side, then you've got to persist. If on the other hand, you have a crackpot idea and the data are on the other side, you have to not be in love with your own idea."

This article adds another dimension to a similar and excellent article written by the late Dan Koshland in Science a while back.


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