On scientists

John W. Burgeson (burgy@compuserve.com)
Mon, 17 Mar 1997 21:28:14 -0500

Glenn, you (apparently) have the deep felt belief that "scientists," as a
general rule, are more to be trusted, are morally superior, are more honest
and ethical, and, in particular, are less likely to "follow the crowd" than
other mortals. All this because of our peculiar (no pejorative intended)

I know that I was taught this belief -- and for a time accepted it -- as I
worked towards my physics degrees back in the 50s. Yes -- I'm sure some of
my family (especially) thought I was a snob. I was.

Such a belief may, indeed, be true, for ought I know. I personally have not
seen sufficient evidence to convince me it is true. My belief is that
scientists are like other humans, including lawyers and shop owners and
truck drivers and many others -- fallible beings, some better than other,
but as an occupation group probably not particularly distinguishable from
many other groups.

My impression is that Johnson was simply pointing that out -- but that's
just my impression. I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt in
many more instances than some of my colleagues at IBM thought reasonable!

The problem is this -- that all of us have a great tendency to identify
with our beliefs, to make them an integral part of who we are. That makes
even the idea of discussing changes to those beliefs so painful that the
best of us will go to our graves still believing in one absurdity or
another. Even Priestley, I am told, surely one of the graetest chemists in
history, clung to the phlogiston theory all his life; when he died, other
proponents of that late and unlamented sidetrack were nowhere to be found.

As I recall, Gould's great book, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, details a number of
late 19th century examples of -- shall we say -- less than "tough minded"
scientific folks. PHYSICS TODAY ran a great article a few years ago on how
the "crowd" flocked to the newly discovered "N-Rays," and it was not for
quite some time that these finally slunk back into the well-deserved
obscurity they deserved all the time. The Martian canals of Lovell is
another example that comes to mind.

Science, being generally self-correcting, can accommodate such problems,
which is one reason I love it so. But I do not gaze upon it with the eyes
of a lover, but rather with the same skepticism which is part and parcel of
its essential methodology. The best of scientists can, and will, overlook
the data that does not fit their preconceived theory. Not all the time; not
often. But it does happen.

I did my thesis work in the mid-50s on a fairly obscure project of solid
state mechanics. My goal was to look for differences in materials under
slow speed impact conditions. Being new at the game, I built a much too
elaborate measuring device for the project -- and started collecting data.
Found a curious anomaly, which I won't go into here. Spent an extra 3
months of my young life trying to figure out what kind of harmonic I had
built into my measuring instrument which would create this anomaly.
Finally, I published it as I found it -- no theory I could find then -- or
since -- could account for the data.

After I published, I found a work by the great physicist Raman, published a
half-century earlier, on the same subject I had researched. His measuring
instruments were entirely different than mine; less precise, but the same
anomaly showed up in his data -- and he had simply ignored it.

Does this mean I was a greater physicist than Raman? Hardly. It just means
I happened to look deeper at some data because it was interesting than he
did -- he had a lot better projects to do than this one, to be sure. I did
have the great benefit of a super mentor, who encouraged me to pursue this
"blind alley," (and spend an extra summer at the University doing so) when
it really wasn't necessary as part of my degree progam.

Well, I yammered on here because I feel deeply about such issues. One of
the Psalms (I think) says "The heart is desparately wicked... ." That has
to include every person's heart -- scientist or not. It includes me. Part
of that human condition is crowd-following. I'd like to believe scientists
are, as an occupation group, "better" than most others for this condition.
I don't.

Peace, my friend. (I envy you your geological colleagues. They sound almost
too good to be true).