The Power of the Field

Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.
Thomas Kuhn

One important aspect of creativity is the field. It does it determine what is creative (and not madness) and what should be incorporated into the domain (e.g., journal publications, textbooks). And it can set limits to what can be done in an area. While I looked at the field primarily regarding its gate-keeper function and access to resources, I recently read an article by Thomas Gold about the way the field influences the way science itself develops (Gold, T. (1989). New Ideas in Science. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3(2), 103-112.).

While the author clearly has (had) his own issues with the scientific community and the journal is somewhere on the fringe, he argues convincingly that the “herd instinct” many scientists show wreaks havoc on scientific progress. As a group effect it creates a false sense of unanimity and excludes alternatives which might be better explanations. Science that is “mainstream” is funded (where initially many people agreed on), which leads other scientists outside of the mainstream region to either fold or move closer to the mainstream region. Over time all scientists converge to the “established” position. There are no rational scientific arguments that move scientists closer to the mainstream region, “only” the pressures of getting funding and finding outlets for publication (i.e., it’s a question of individual survival in academia). Over time this leads to a false sense of unanimity — scientists have the same opinions, not because the topic is solved, but because this is the only way to survive.

The author describes that as a consequence, reviewers will ditch specific approaches or topics, but cannot give valid arguments for their decision. It also leads to what the author describes as “shoehorn science” — it’s easy to get funding for research that tires to integrate conflicting facts into the established framework. And, of course, science cannot function this way — progress is not made if the original position was not the right one.

In short, I agree with many points the author raises. It would be interesting to examine his hypotheses empirically … although one would have to have access to all submitted and rejected articles for a given topic for a few decades prior and after a paradigm change took place. But even without empirical data, I agree that the concerns are grave and worth to keep in mind. Sure, science is a social enterprise and the field is necessary to keep high scientific standards. But rejections of proposals for funding and articles should be based on arguments, and if there are none, perhaps then it’s time to find out empirically whether the idea has any merit or not (with special scrutiny regarding the way the research is conducted), instead of dismissing it simply because it lies outside the place where the herd roams.

Categories: Community Aspects, Feedback, Science


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