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Thread: Why are scientists seemingly reluctant to accept new ideas?

  1. #1 Why are scientists seemingly reluctant to accept new ideas? 
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    I was debating with my uncle a little while ago, and it eventually culminated in him claiming that science is in many way like a religion (I blatantly disagree with that comparison, by the way), because when a scientific theory becomes widely accepted among the scientific community, it almost becomes scientific dogma, and anyone who proposes a radical new idea is rarely taken seriously because so many scientists will have staked their entire careers on the existing theory. I confess I found this claim to be quite disturbing, because it goes completely counter to everything I believe in about what scientists should do. What does everyone think about this claim? Does it have any truth to it?

    In at least some cases it seems to be true. I remember back in 2010 when they announced the tentative discovery of GFAJ-1, the bacterium that supposedly incorporated arsenic into its DNA instead of phosphorus, that the scientist who published her findings almost immediately started receiving piles of jeering condescension from many scientists, and ultimately lost most of her credibility in the scientific community. I remember being extremely indignant by the stance that scientists were taking on this discovery. Admittedly, I do believe that she jumped the gun on announcing her discovery, made only worse by NASA blowing it way out of proportion the way they did, but still, she was just doing what scientists do, albeit somewhat prematurely. The exact same thing happened to the scientists who claimed (and they made it clear that is wasn't yet conclusive) to have discovered neutrinos traveling faster than light earlier this year. What should have been treated as potentially one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the history of physics was instead met with open contempt by a great many scientists even before their experiment could be reproduced. It's one thing to be skeptical, that is after all one of the defining attributes of all good scientists, but to openly go after scientists who propose new ideas like that just seems to go completely against everything I believe about scientists.

    Does anyone have any opinions and/or rebukes to my argument? If I've missed the point here please let me know.


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  3. #2  
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    Both the claim about bacteria using arsenic instead of phosphorus & the claim about neutrinos travelling faster than light was said to be false after people did another research (the bacteria are actually using very very little phosphorus & the cable was faulty thus causing some nano-second error). I think the reason why scientist would openly dismiss such claim is because the claim is too outrageous or infringe upon the core/basic scientific theory. -When the claim was first made it sound too good to be true, so people naturally dismiss it (just like how we dismiss a scam), and after trying to disprove the claim they found it indeed to be false, so their prejudice is correct.


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    Brassica oleracea Strange's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fanghur View Post
    when a scientific theory becomes widely accepted among the scientific community, it almost becomes scientific dogma
    I think you are ignoring the reason why a theory becomes accepted (what you call "dogma"). This is simply because of the success of the theory in terms of explaining observations and evidence.

    Scientists are, rightly, sceptical of new ideas. If everyone had accepted the faster than light neutrino story at first, they would have looked pretty silly a few months later.

    The degree of scepticism, and the amount of confirmation required, is of course related to the nature of the new discovery/theory.

    If it is the discovery of a new protein involved in DNA transcription, for example, then no one will be too shocked and will just wait for a few people to replicate the data. (Or not.)

    If it something like the neutrino results it will, not unreasonably, be treated with extreme scepticism because it contradicts a very well established (i.e. well tested) theory. If the result had been replicated by multiple labs, many people would still be sceptical until there was a good theoretical explanation which could be tested in other ways.

    There is a large amount of "inertia" in the scientific process. It doesn't work despite that; it works because of that.

    , and anyone who proposes a radical new idea is rarely taken seriously because so many scientists will have staked their entire careers on the existing theory.
    I think that is an exaggeration. There will always be some (perhaps) older scientists who are less willing to accept new ideas. Not surprising, they are human beings. In terms of the scientific process, it doesn't matter.

    Very rarely it may slow things down a bit. For example, Eddington's opposition to Chandrasekhar's work on black holes may have meant his contribution wasn't recognised for some time.

    On the other hand, it can be a great benefit. Einstein never accepted the full implications of quantum theory (despite his Nobel prize for his work in the area). However, having someone as brilliant as Einstein questioning and testing the theory just served to make it stronger and better defined.
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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  5. #4  
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    What does everyone think about this claim? Does it have any truth to it?
    It's expressed in the wrong words. The correct words are those of Carl Sagan ......

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    Once a theory is clearly expressed and has accumulated a good assembly of well-supported evidence, any "radical" proposition which contradicts either the theory or the evidence - or both - has a very steep mountain to climb.
    "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Winston Churchill
    "nature is like a game of Jenga; you never know which brick you pull out will cause the whole stack to collapse" Lucy Cooke
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  6. #5  
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    Quote Originally Posted by adelady View Post
    What does everyone think about this claim? Does it have any truth to it?
    It's expressed in the wrong words. The correct words are those of Carl Sagan ......

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    Once a theory is clearly expressed and has accumulated a good assembly of well-supported evidence, any "radical" proposition which contradicts either the theory or the evidence - or both - has a very steep mountain to climb.
    where is the evidence for dark matter?

    science is no different than any other human endeavor, it has fads, and assumptions that limit it's progress and accepted theories which eventually prove to have been just wrong.
    examples from american archaeology----"clovis first" and the "ice free corridor" dogma based on assumptions and speculation.
    or dynosaurs were cold blooded
    or ............
    the list of disproved commonly held theories is almost as long as the list of theories

    scientists are no different than any other human beings, we make mistakes, we develope prejudices, we develope entrenched opinions, then look aghast at anyone who would dare to challenge our cherished beliefs

    (but then again, even I could be wrong)
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    Quote Originally Posted by sculptor View Post
    where is the evidence for dark matter?
    Rotational velocities in galaxies, gravitational lensing, etc. It wouldn't have been hypothesized for no reason. Of course, we don't know what it is yet. It may not be "matter" (although that is looking less likely as evidence accumulates).

    I'm not sure what the point was?

    dogma based on assumptions and speculation.
    I think this is more a problem with journalism and the public perception of science. When there are unknowns (e.g. the nature of matter) scientists will adopt one or default explanations until more evidence is available. This seems to get translated from "this is our best idea at the moment, we are looking for more information to confirm or refute it" to The Truth by the popular press.
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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  8. #7  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope sculptor's Avatar
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    While I cannot speak for all science diciplines, I will assure you that in archaeology and anthropology it wasn't

    a problem with journalism and the public perception of science
    The misdirected erroneous theories I mentioned were lecture and textbook norms at universities circa 1966-1980
    And, to the best of my memory< I never took a single journalism course.

    Defend that which is defensible. Do not make gods of those with feet of clay.
    Recognize that your scientists demigods are of the same nature as yourself.
    Frail opinionated and ofttimes wrong.
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    Note: Its Dinosaurs, not dynosaurs...
    If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. -Thorin Oakenshield

    The needs of the many outweigh the need of the few - Spock of Vulcan & Sentinel Prime of Cybertron ---proof that "the needs" are in the eye of the beholder.
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  10. #9  
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    "Dinosaurs" thanx
    ..............
    (if the sum total of my errors were limited to spelling, I'd be a better man)
    Last edited by sculptor; August 26th, 2012 at 09:02 PM.
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  11. #10  
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    Fanghur, I think you would appreciate reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which is arguably one of the most influential books of the twentieth century and a key text in the philosophy and history of science. Although most now agree that Kuhn did not perfectly describe how all changes occur in science, it is a very good read (although a bit dry in places if you ask me). Kuhn wrote in terms of "paradigms" (of course), and he coined the now-overwrought phrase "paradigm shift".

    I forget what's in the book exactly and what I've read elsewhere that has added to my knowledge of scientific progress, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes here.

    Kuhn posits that scientists, despite claiming to be very rational and cool-headed, can be very emotional and pig-headed when it comes to new discoveries that challenge the tried and the true. Huge leaps in understanding (ie, "paradigm shifts") are met with great resistance from the scientific community. At first, pioneers will be laughed at and scorned, then others will slowly begin to look carefully at the pioneers' work and build their own instrument, conduct their own experiments, and draw their own conclusions. Finally, once the scientific community has realized that the new paradigm better represents reality than the old one did, they will say that it was obvious all along and that no one really doubted it. Ha! Kuhn gives a few real-life examples of this happening in the field of science.

    Furthermore, new paradigms often require new parameters and new metrics measured along new dimensions, and new instruments to do the measuring. So pioneers sometimes use instrument prototypes that no one has ever heard of before, whose operation and outputs aren't trusted by the scientific community.

    You should be able to get a paperback edition at a used book store for short money, the second edition better than the first, of course. It should also be available at your public or school library for free.
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    paradigm = An overall concept accepted by most people in an intellectual community, as those in one of the natural sciences, because of its effectiveness in explaining a complex process, idea, or set of data.
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  12. #11  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Fanghur, other posters have addressed various aspects of your OP. I want to challenge your perception of what occured with the two examples you used.

    I saw a combination of skepticism (justified) and excitement (welcome and understandable) when the bacterial arsenic users were announced. It is now clear that even the most virulent skeptics were fully justified.

    In the case of the superluminal neutrinos the balance of reaction appeared to be "Wow, wouldn't that be great! Now lets seen where they may have gone wrong."

    Those wer my impressions.
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post

    In the case of the superluminal neutrinos the balance of reaction appeared to be "Wow, wouldn't that be great! Now lets seen where they may have gone wrong."
    That was the attitude of the researchers themselves as well. They said look, we found this and can't figure out where we screwed up. Can anyone else?
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