Opinion Op Ed 20 Jul 2017 When scientists are ...
The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University. He was Cambridge University’s Senior Wrangler in Maths in 1959.

When scientists are irrational

Published Jul 20, 2017, 12:46 am IST
Updated Jul 20, 2017, 12:46 am IST
Even God cannot find a way out of such review traps as the following anecdote reminds us.
‘They’re tickboxers’
 ‘They’re tickboxers’

Scientists as a community take pride in declaring themselves as rational. The phrase “the scientific temper” is supposed to characterise the way a scientist thinks, decides and acts. The individual as well as society as a whole should be expected to adopt the scientific temper as the modus operandi for action. The ultimate choice of action may not be influenced by what some distinguished member of society recommends. Nowhere is this stated so explicitly as in our Bhagavad Gita. In the final 18th chapter of this dialogue between Krishna and Arjun, Krishna says: I have told you many secret aspects of knowledge. Think over them thoroughly and then do as you think fit.

But even as scientists, we are all human, capable of making mistakes and carried away from the recommended rational path. Here are some anecdotes that illustrate how far the growing establishment of modern scientific research proceeds on the rational path.

 

Despite professing to be scientists many of them are subject to superstitions and beliefs in miracles performed by godmen. However, there are exceptions too! One such distinguished scientist was taken to meet a godman who, to impress the visitor, produced a gold watch out of “nowhere”. When he offered it as a present to the guest, the scientist said: “Sir, you have brought this object from infinity to here. If you could move it a further six inches towards me, I will be happy to accept your gift.” Needless to say, the godman could not do so.

 

A young scientist was presenting a paper at an international conference and it was clear from the audience’s response that he was not able to “sell” his idea. At the end of the presentation, one senior member of the audience asked point blank: “This is a crazy idea. How were you allowed to present it on this forum?” The young man was not shocked by this broadside but had the presence of mind to tell a story that had a bearing on the answer to the question. 

The story was about a fox living in a cave in a forest. One day he was caught by a wolf who wanted to eat him. The fox, however, had his wits in place to invite the wolf to his cave where he would be able to meet his collaborator. Assuming that the collaborator was another fox and that two foxes are better than one, the wolf accompanied him to the cave. 

 

The wolf never came out. A few days later, a leopard accosted the fox with the same intention and he too was invited to the cave. He also was not seen to come out of the cave. This process, which always ended in a one-way path for any animal, began to reduce the jungle population steadily and alarmingly. At last, the surviving animals formed a delegation to peep into the cave at midday when they felt it was safe to look for the collaborator. What they saw was an enormous lion looking fierce even when asleep.

The young man concluded his story by flashing across the screen a photograph of his collaborator: a Nobel laureate of considerable reputation and (of course) influence.

 

A similar situation arises when scientists are invited to give distinguished lectures or to present their work in conferences. A lot depends on whether the person to be invited is doing work, which is supportive of the view of the organisers of the event. So long as he fulfils the requirement, it does not matter what is the standard of work being presented. Consider the following event.

A speaker was giving a very boring seminar. Most of the audience had lost interest in what he was saying. Some had gone to sleep while some were working on their own problems on laptops. As the matter got worse, a member of the audience stood up and took out a revolver. Seeing the weapon, the speaker started shaking and put his hands up. The man in the audience, however, said in pacifying tones: “Don’t worry. I am not going to shoot you. I am looking for the organiser who invited you.”

 

Another way of suppressing rival ideas in favour of your own is to organise peer groups sympathetic to you. Such groupings come in useful when allocating grants. In these days of high cost research, the source of funding for research, usually a government department, arranges peer reviews of applications for funds. The final decision on who should get support depends on these peer group committees. If Professor X is the most “influential” scientist around then he will see to it that suitable persons are appointed as reviewers so as to put a brake on the progress of supporters of the rival Professor Y.

 

In one such review process, one reviewer rejected a (rival) proposal on the grounds that there were no post-doctoral and graduate student scientists working in the group. And independently of him a second hostile reviewer commented that the ideas proposed were so radical that no young scientists like post-docs or research students should work on them. So how does one emerge from this vicious circle?

Even God cannot find a way out of such review traps as the following anecdote reminds us. Once God applied for a research grant for doing more work on the creation of the universe. His application was rejected for three reasons. First, that it was a long time since he had last worked on this topic. So his capability was under question. The second reason was that his last experiment (of creating the universe) was under suspicion because nobody else had been able to repeat it. (Remember a scientific experiment should be repeatable in order to be credible.) The third reason for rejection was that his work has not been published in refereed journals but only in a book!

 

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