Doug Natelson has done an outstanding job at debunking a ridiculous charge of confirmation bias allegedly affecting a recent study of climate change. Such a charge is put forth in an article published in the popular press (on a very prominent venue). While ostensibly aimed at educating the general public about some aspects of how science works, the article sneakily rehashes one of the most common and dangerous misconceptions that exist out there about science, namely that in the end it is not as “objective” as its practitioners claim.
Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category
The damage that falsehood can do, if unchallenged and/or perpetuated over a period of time, can be considerable, often long lasting, both to individuals (for whom it is typically permanent — ask anyone wrongly convicted of a crime that they did not commit) and to humankind as a whole. For this reason, it seems a good idea to have procedures in place not only to spot it, but also to expose and debunk falsehood swiftly and effectively, before it spreads.
There exist circumstances in which falsehood acquires a pernicious resilience, even in the absence of a concerted effort on the part of anyone to preserve it. All that is needed is a sufficiently robust system of perverse incentives, which may come about for whatever reason and prove surprisingly hard to die.
Nope, sorry, this is not a post about politics, there are no upcoming elections anyway. I am writing in frustration, after checking once again on the web the status of a manuscript that I have submitted for publication over two months ago, to find out that it is still under review, ostensibly in the virtual hands of an unresponsive referee.
I come back to one of my favorite subjects, prompted by a recent comment asking for my opinion on the proposed boycott of Elsevier, a company publishing a number of scientific journals. In the eyes of many, some of Elsevier’s practices are incompatible with the ultimate goal of achieving the widest dissemination of scientific information and progress — a goal that many a scientist hold so vital that even in a market economy, no acceptable business model for scientific publishing should sacrifice it to the altar of profit.
Twenty-five years ago, the first so-called high temperature superconductor was discovered — unexpectedly, almost out of nowhere. Suddenly, the interest of physicists all over the world in the phenomenon of superconductivity was re-ignited (click here for a comprehensive and authoritative review of this subject).
Superconductivity, first discovered 75 years earlier, was considered in 1986 well understood, witness the physics Nobel Prize awarded in 1972 to Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer (BCS) for their microscopic theory of the phenomenon.
An aspect that is widely perceived as “problematic”, in the way the career path of a scientist in North America is currently structured, is the relatively long period of uncertainty and precariousness between the obtainment of one’s doctoral degree and the first potentially permanent employment . That time, which in some fields of inquiry often approaches or exceeds the decade, is typically spent in term, so-called postdoctoral appointments.
This state of affairs has prompted cell biologist Jennifer Rohn to write an editorial published on the prestigious Nature magazine, calling for a restructuring of what she calls a “broken system” of traineeship in the sciences.
In one of his latest posts, Doug Natelson brings up a thorny issue for condensed matter physicists, namely: what makes it so difficult to render palatable to the general public this area of research, which so many of us find not only scientifically compelling and intellectually fascinating, but also genuinely fun ?
Why is it that it is far more common for someone with no physics or science background, to have at least heard about string theory, the Hubble space telescope, the human genome project or global warming, than it is for that person to have some vague idea of, say, what a superconductor is, or why a solid melts as the temperature is raised, or even what holds atoms and molecules together to make a solid ?
It is difficult these days to go through calls for research proposals from government agencies, and not see at least some emphasis on “interdisciplinary research” (IR), i.e., research centered on a project or theme involving a collaboration among scientists of different backgrounds. IR is the focus of a growing number of scientific journals (see, here, for instance), including some with a clearly stated intellectual affiliation to one specific discipline (see, for instance, this one).
Interdisciplinarity is also the darling of university administrations, eager to establish new curricula of studies, aimed at imparting broad (if perhaps less in-depth) knowledge of science, spread across several of the traditional fields as opposed to focused on one of them.
Each scientific manuscript submitted for publication to specialized journals, as well as each proposal requesting research funding from government agencies, is anonymously reviewed by a number of scientists. These individual are carefully selected by a journal editor or a program director, with the goal of providing a competent, thorough and detailed assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the submission. Usually, reviewers are themselves active investigators in the field of research where the subject of the manuscript or proposal falls.
In an ideal world, reviewers would examine the manuscript or proposal carefully and objectively, point out technical flaws, warn the authors of potential pitfalls, mention previous relevant work by others that authors may have overlooked, but also acknowledge and highlight any novel idea or result (either achieved or imminent) contained in the work reviewed.