Friday, February 12, 2010

Scientist Quits

Physicists dream of Nobel prizes, engineers dream of mishaps.” Hendrik Tennekes

Science is in a sorry state these days. It is so bad that a Dutch scientist has resigned from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Henk Tennekes is well known to the visitors of our website. A few days ago, he told me that he submitted a letter of resignation to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences on Saturday, January 23. He wrote to me “I don’t want to remain a member of an organization that, like AMS and NAS, screws up science that badly.” The Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad apparently got hold of a copy of the resignation letter and ran a News Flash on Saturday, January 30. In the letter to the Academy, Henk complains that he submitted the manuscript of his essay on Hermetic Jargon (which I am happy to reproduce here below, with his permission) to the Academy President at that time, Frits van Oostrom. The President, however, did not bother to respond. The NRC news flash, translated by Henk himself at my request, reads:
You can read the rest by following the link.

What bothers me is the attitude (not a new one) that we know it all. And what is unknown will just be a few minor corrections and additions to current theory.
American and British history is riddled with examples of valid research and inventions which have been suppressed and derogated by the conventional science community. This has been of great cost to society and to individual scientists. Rather than furthering the pursuit of new scientific frontiers, the structure of British and American scientific institutions leads to conformity and furthers consensus-seeking. Scientists are generally like other people when it comes to the biases and self-justifications that cause them to make bad decisions and evade the truth. Some topics in science are 'taboo' subjects.
The author of the paper goes on to describe how it works. He does sometimes fall in with the cranks (well who knows - maybe some day they won't be cranks) but he makes a lot of good points along the way.

Here is one I especially like.
Other innovators who were described by Milton (Alternative Science: Challenging the Myths of the Scientific Establishment 1996) as victims of the insults of the skeptical scientific power elite, were such men as John Logie Baird, inventor of television. Baird had been described by the British Royal Society as "a swindler" (p. 19). Likewise, Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-rays was decried as an "elaborate hoax" (p.22) by Lord Kelvin, the most influential scientist of Europe in 1895. Scientists of Roentgen's day produced film fogging X-rays on a substantial scale but were unwilling to consider the wide ranging implications of Roentgen's work for 10 years after his discovery (Milton, 1996).

Another example of such victimization, presented by Dean Radin (1996) in his book The Conscious Universe, involved the theory of German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener. This theory which Wegener developed in 1915, contended that the earth's continents had once been a single mass of land which later drifted apart. Although Wegener carefully cataloged geological evidence, his American and British colleagues ridiculed both him and his idea (Radin, 1996). Although Wegener died an intellectual outcast in 1930, every schoolchild is currently taught his theory which is known as continental drift.
I'm not actually comfortable with Radin's book. The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. I don't think we actually have any scientific truth in the field. However, people do report things which, if valid, are weakly explained. Or explained away. I'm personally of the opinion that it is an emergent behavior of the way our brains work. I believe it is related to the fact that not all the signals the brain sends out rise to the level of consciousness (I have a feeling).

In any case I think this list is instructive.
Hans Alfven (galaxy-scale plasma dynamics)

Astronomers thought that gravity alone is important in solar systems, in galaxies, etc. Alfven's idea that plasma physics is of equal or greater importance to gravity was derided for decades.

John L. Baird (television camera)

When the first television system was demonstrated to the Royal Society (British scientists,) they scoffed and ridiculed it.

Robert Bakker (fast, warm-blooded dinosaurs)

Everyone knows that dinosaurs are like Gila monsters or big tortoises: large, slow, and intolerant of the cold. And they're all colored olive drab too! :)

Bardeen & Brattain (transistor)

Not ridiculed, but their boss W. Shockley nixed their idea, and when they started investigating it, he made them stop. They assembled their point-contact experiment on a wheeled cart and continued. They could shove it into a closet whenever the boss came by.

J Harlen Bretz

Endured decades of scorn as the laughingstock of the geology world. His crime was to insist that enormous amounts of evidence showed that the "scabland" desert landscape of Eastern Washington state had endured an ancient catastrophy: a flood of staggering proportions. This was outright heresy, since the geology community of the time had dogmatic belief in a "uniformitarian" position, where all changes must take place incrementally over vast time scales. Bretz was vindicated by the 1950s. Quote: "All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over."
One of the fields I'm currently exploring, fusion power, makes extensive use of ideas such as Alfven Waves in an effort to make tokamak devices (such as ITER) work.

Here is another good site on Geniuses derided. I speaks to something I am personally familiar with.
Some ridiculed ideas which had no supporters:

* Ball lightning - lacking a theory, it was long dismissed as retinal afterimages
* Catastrophism - ridicule of rapid Earth changes, asteroid mass extinctions
* Child abuse - before 1950, doctors were mystified by "spontaneous" childhood bruising
* Cooperation or altruism between animals - versus Evolution's required competition
* Instantaneous meteor noises - evidence rejected because sound should be delayed by distance
* Mind-body connection - psychoneuroimmunology, doctors ridiculed psychological basis for disease
* Perceptrons - later vindicated as Neural Networks
I once had a personal experience with ball lightning which I describe here.
I once had a personal experience with ball lightning. About 3/4 of a m across glowing green. Moving slowly. Scared the hell out of me.

It happened inside a geodesic dome that had a long wire antenna connected. (Ham radio stuff).

I watched it while slowly backing away. It dissipated in about 10 seconds more or less.
Let me add that it seems to have been triggered by a near by lightning strike. More discussion of ball lightning.

When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. — Jonathan Swift

So true. The problem is in separating the cranks from the geniuses. I did a post on some "cranks" that seem to be coming up with some interesting results. The people "in the know" said it was all foolishness.

I did a post not too long back on the origins of inertia that I called Maching Einstein. And there is a very long thread at NASA Spaceflight on the subject. You would think that a fundamental concept like inertia might warrant a closer look. Maybe a few millions a year for experiments. But you would be wrong.

I remember what an uphill fight I had to get people interested in Polywell fusion. I got comments like, "They blew up their experiment? Proof positive of incompetence". Or "If this is such a good idea why was funding cut?" Or "There is a paper out there (Todd Rider) that proves it can't work." And much more along those lines. Now is it a sure thing? No. But the odds are good enough and the rewards so large that it is worth a few million (which the US Navy put up in August of 2007) to find some answers. There is way too much in science that the scientific establishment does not want answers too - you know - the science is settled.

Cross Posted at Classical Values

No comments: