Ossified Science

There was an interesting paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (118,  e2021636118,  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2021636118 ) which argued that science is becoming ossified, and new ideas simply cannot emerge. My question is, why has it taken them this long to recognize it? That may seem a strange thing to say, but over the life of my career I have seen no radically new ideas get acknowledgement.

The argument in the paper basically fell down to one simple fact: over this period there has been a huge expansion in the quantity of scientists, research funding, and the number of publications. Progress in the career of a scientist depends on the number of papers produced. However, the more papers produced, the more likely is the science to stagnate because nobody has the time to read everything. People pick and choose what to read, the selection biased by the need not to omit people who may read your funding application. Reading is thus focused on established thinking. As the number of papers increase, citations flow increasingly towards the already well-cited papers. Lesser known authors are unlikely to ever become highly cited; if they do it is not through a cumulative process of analysis. New material is extremely unlikely to disrupt existing work, with the result that progress in large established scientific fields may be trapped in existing canon. That is fairly stern stuff.

It is important to note there are at least three major objectives relating to science. The first is developing methods to gain information, or, if you prefer, developing new experimental or observational techniques. The second is using those techniques to record more facts. The more scientists there are, the more successful these are, and over the period we have most certainly been successful in these objectives. The rapid provision of new vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 shows that when pushed, we find ways of how to do it. When I started my career, a very large clunky computer that was incredibly slow and had internal memory measured in bytes occupied a room. Now we have memory that stores terrabytes in something you can hold in your hand. So yes, we have learned how to do it, and we have acquired a huge amount of knowledge. There is a glut of facts available.

The third objective is to analyse those facts and derive theories so we can understand nature, and do not have to examine that mountain of data for any reason other than to verify that we are on the right track. That is where little has happened.

As the PNAS paper points out, policy reflects the “more is better” approach. Rewards are for the number of articles, and citations reflect the quality of them. The number of publications are easily counted, but the citations are more problematical. To get the numbers up, people carry out work most likely to reach a fast result. The citations are the ones most easily found, which means those that get a good start gather citations like crazy. There are also “citation games”: you cite mine, I’ll cite yours. These citations may have nothing in particular to add in terms of the science or logic, but they do add to the career prospects.

What happens when a paper is published? As the PNAS paper says, “cognitively overloaded reviewers and readers process new work only in relationship to existing exemplars”. If a new paper does not fit the existing dynamic, it will be ignored. If  the young researcher wants to advance, he or she must avoid trying to rock the boat. You may feel that the authors of this are overplaying a non-problem. Not so. One example shows how the scientific hierarchy thinks. One of the two major advances in theoretical physics in the twentieth century was quantum mechanics. Basically, all our advanced electronic technology depends on that theory, and in turn the theory is based on one equation published by Erwin Schrödinger. This equation is effectively a statement that energy is conserved, and that the energy is determined by a wave function ψ. It is too much to go into here, but the immediate consequence was the problem, what exactly does ψ represent?

Louis de Broglie was the first to propose that quantum motion was represented by a wave, and he came up with a different equation which stated the product of the momentum and wavelength was Planck’s constant, or the quantum of action. De Broglie then proposed that ψ was a physical wave, which he called the pilot wave. This was promptly ignored in favour of a far more complicated mathematical procedure that we can ignore for the present. Then, in the early 1950s David Bohm more or less came up with the same idea as de Broglie, which was quite different from the standard paradigm. So how was that received? I found a 1953 quote from J. R. Oppenheimer: “We consider it juvenile deviationism .. we don’t waste our time … [by] actually read[ing] the paper. If we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him.” So much for rational analysis.

The standard theory states that if an electron is fired at two slits it goes through BOTH of them then gives an interference pattern. The pilot wave says the electron has a trajectory, goes through one slit only, and while it forms the same interference pattern, an electron going through the left slit never ends up in the right hand pattern. Observations have proved this to be correct (Kocsis, S. and 6 others. 2011. Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer Science 332: 1170 – 1173.) Does that change anyone’s mind? Actually, no. The pilot wave is totally ignored, except for the odd character like me, although my version is a little different (called a guidance wave) and it is ignored more.