Study: Elite scientists can hold back science

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Study: Elite scientists can hold back science Empty Study: Elite scientists can hold back science

Post by Guest on Mon Dec 21, 2015 11:49 am

Max Planck — the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who pioneered quantum theory — once said the following about scientific progress:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Shorter: Science is not immune to interpersonal bullshit. Scientists can be stubborn. They can use their gravitas to steamroll new ideas. Which means those new ideas often only prevail when older scientists die. Recently, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper — titled, "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?" — that puts Planck's principle to the test. Sifting through citations in the PubMed database, they found evidence that when a prominent researcher suddenly dies in an academic subfield, a period of new ideas and innovation follow. The NBER team identified 12,935 "elite" scientists — based on the amount of funding they receive, how many times they've published, how many patents they invented, or whether they were members of the National Academies of Sciences or the Institute of Medicine. Searching through obituaries, they found 452 of these elite researchers died before retirement. Because science leaves a dense paper trail of citations, publish dates, and author bylines, it's (relatively) easy to track changes in publishing patterns after a prominent death.

Here's the pattern: After the unexpected death of a rock-star scientist, their frequent collaborators — the junior researchers who authored papers with them — suddenly see a drop in publication. At the same time, there is a marked increase in published work by other newcomers to the field:

Unlike the collaborators, presumably, these newcomers are less beholden to the dead luminaries. They were "less likely to cite the deceased star’s work at all," the report states. And they seemed to be making novel advances in science:
The new articles represent substantial contributions, at least as measured by long-run citation impact. Together, these results paint a picture of scientific fields as scholarly guilds to which elite scientists can regulate access, providing them with outsized opportunities to shape the direction of scientific advance in that space.

All this suggest there's a "goliath's shadow" effect. People are either prevented from or afraid of challenging a leading thinker in a field. That or scientific subfields are like grown-up versions of high school cafeteria tables. New people just can't sit there until the queen bee dies. What's interesting is that the deaths seemed to hurt the careers of the luminaries' junior collaborators, the ones who frequently co-authored papers with them but not in a senior role. "The death of an elite scientist has a negative and seemingly permanent impact on the productivity of their coauthors," the study reports. They published less, while outsiders flooded the void. (The authors caution that gatekeeping by elite researchers isn't always a bad thing. "Gatekeeping activities could have beneficial properties when [a] field is in its inception," granting scientists more room to take risks.)
All of this is another example of how progress in science is confounded by human behavior. We see this in so many ways. Scientists lie about results. Or they discount insights derived from failures. Science is so obsessed with the rewards of solving complicated problems that it forgets about the simple ones. The field overwhelmingly is biased toward males (experiments have shown "John" gets more accolades than "Jennifer" with the identical résumé).

It's worth remembering: Science may be a noble discipline based on cold logic and rational observation; but humans are animals fueled by emotion and bias. As the NBER researchers conclude: "[T]he idiosyncratic stances of individual scientists can do much to alter, or at least delay, the course of scientific advance."


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Study: Elite scientists can hold back science Empty Re: Study: Elite scientists can hold back science

Post by Original Quill on Mon Dec 21, 2015 4:51 pm

Max Planck is significant to this discussion: he had to write his PhD dissertation at the University of Munich on the second law of thermodynamics, because his theory of quantum mechanics was too far out for anyone to appreciate.  He was the paradigm example of the person caught in the cracks of human social/political dynamics.

Academia, as with any other human endeavor, has it's conservatives.  Conservatives, by definition, stand against change and progress.  Physics professor Philipp von Jolly once told Planck: " this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes."  It's in the nature of conservatives to be against new ideas, and indeed, against any kind of thinking whatsoever.

Max Planck went on to serve as a distinguished professor of physics at the University of Berlin until 1926, and lay the foundations of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany.

“Little thieves are hanged, but great thieves are praised.” — Old Russian proverb, offered by Vladimir Putin to Donald J. Trump, Helsinki, July, 2018.

"I don't stand by anything."  ― Donald Trump, interview with John Dickerson, 5.1.17...

Normal is broken.

“That's libertarians for you — anarchists who want police protection from their slaves.” ― Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars
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