Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Herd trampling on Tall Poppies, or the myths of peer review publications.

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth, if it be such as would obliged them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.


One of the Great controversies is how the “closed shop” of scientific review for publication and funding can lead to the passage of scientific consensus into blind cul-de-sacs of scientific theory .Indeed we can cite many Nobel laureates who when questioning the ‘Paradigm” were treated with contemptuous ridicule from the “consensus club”

Thomas Gold cited the behavior of the Nasa consensus of ‘in-house peer review”as the closed herd (neutron star rotation).

Another area where it is particularly bad is in the planetary sciences where NASA made great mistakes in the way in which they set up the situation. NASA made the grave mistake not only of working with a peer review system, but one where some of the peers (in fact very influential ones) were the in-house people doing the same line of work. This established a community of planetary scientists now which was completely selected by the leading members of the herd, which was very firmly controlled, and after quite a short time, the slightest departure from the herd was absolutely cut down. Money was not there for anybody who had a slightly diverging viewpoint. The conferences ignored him, and so on. It became completely impossible to do any independent work. For all the money that has been spent, the planetary program will one day be seen to have been extraordinarily poor. The pictures are fine and some of the facts that have been obtained from the planetary exploration with spacecraft - those will stand but not much else.

We have seen this with the conflicts with eminent scientists such as Arthur Eddington and the controversy with Chandrasekhar on neutron stars.

In astrophysics circles this controversy is usually described in terms of Eddington as a great man with deep philosophical beliefs and unorthodox views on how the laws of science might change i.e., it was not clear whether he was morally right in “putting down” a young man so thoroughly and consistently, but it was not clear either till much later that he was scientifically wrong. However, in 1946 I was a graduate student in physics, not in astrophysics, my thesis advisor was Rudolf Peierls and it was clear that Eddington was wrong right from the start! At least this was the situation with two very specific papers of Eddington’s.

These two papers(Eddington 1935a and 1935b) were mainly concerned with the laws of physics in existence at the time, especially quantum mechanics and special relativity, not with philosophy or the future (in one of them there was one delightful digression into the “magic numbers” in astronomy and physics which was vintage Eddington, but this did not impinge on the main text). There were two aspects to these papers: (i) they pointed out genuine difficulties that would be faced if one
wanted to carry out very rigorous and very accurate calculations, and (ii) an explicit calculation of the equation of state for relativistic electrons as Fermi-Dirac particles which not only gave the wrong result but consisted of sheer nonsense or double-talk or both! An example of (i) was how to treat Dirac electrons under high pressurewhen they are not free particles but are confined by a strong gravitational field. My thesis advisor had solved this problem within a year (Peierls 1936), although it was not a trivially simple calculation. And I have worried off and on over the last 50 years about (ii). Eddington was a great man and on some level of consciousness he must have known he had written nonsense — how could he live with himself and how could two respectable journals publish such papers? I have felt that much of the answer stems from the genuine problems in (i) obscuring the treatment in (ii).I consider the juxtaposition of macroscopic and several microscopic complications in one problem a particularly exciting challenge for a theorist.

One of the greatest examples is Alfvén

Alfvén became active in interplanetary and magnetospheric physics at a time when a contrary viewpoint prevailed. Alfvén's views were consistent with those of the founder of magnetospheric physics, the great Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. At the end of the nineteenth century Birkeland had laid out a compelling case-supported by theory, laboratory experiments, polar expeditions, and a chain of magnetic-field "observatories" around the world -that electric currents flowing down along the earth's magnetic fields into the atmosphere were the cause of the aurora and polar magnetic disturbances.

However, in the decades following Birkeland's death in 1917, Chapman became the acknowledged leader in interplanetary and magnetospheric physics. Chapman proposed, in contradistinction to Birkeland's ideas, that currents were restricted to flow only in the ionosphere with no downflowing currents. Chapman's theory was so mathematically elegant that it gained wide acceptance over the Birkeland theory. Based on Chapman's theory, algebraic expressions of the ionospheric current system could, with complete mathematical rigor, be derived by any student of the subject. Birkeland's ideas might have faded completely had it not been for Hannes Alfvén, who became involved well after Chapman's ideas gained predominance. Alfvén kept insisting that Birkeland's current system made more sense because downflowing currents following the earth's magnetic field lines were required to drive most of the ionospheric currents. The issue was not settled until 1974, four years after Chapman's death, when earth satellites measured downflowing currents for the first time.

This story was typical of the difficulties Alfvén faced in his scientific career. Interplanetary space was commonly considered to be a good vacuum, disturbed only by occasional comets. This viewpoint was widely accepted because space "looked" that way, having been viewed only by using telescopes at optical wavelengths. In contrast, the electrical currents proposed by Alfvén generated a telltale signature only in the radio portions of the electromagnetic spectrum so they had not yet been observed. Thus Alfvén's proposal that there were electrical currents in space was received with great skepticism.

And as we see published in Science and reported in the New Scientist .

Elusive magnetic ripples called Alfvén waves have been spotted shimmering in the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, for the first time. The waves travel 10 times faster than the speed of sound and may help crack the mystery of why the corona is so much hotter than the Sun's visible surface.

At 2 million degrees Celsius, the corona is hundreds of times hotter than the Sun's visible surface, which lies beneath it and simmers at a mere 5000° C. But figuring out what injects so much heat into the corona has eluded scientists for decades.

One idea is that the corona is heated by magnetic ripples called Alfvén waves. These waves – which had been observed in the solar wind but never in the corona – are vibrations of the Sun's magnetic field lines.

Returning to Thomas Gold

I sometimes wonder if the much encouraged and proclaimed interaction among western astronomers leads to a form of mental herd behavior which, if it does not actually put a clamp upon free thinking, insidiously applies the pressure to follow the fashion. This makes the writings of our Soviet colleagues who have partly developed ideas in comparative isolation all the more valuable.

Yes, I have wondered whether one should in fact pursue subjects with a big wall between two groups that are working in the same field, so that they absolutely cannot communicate, and see a few years later whether they come even approximately to the same conclusion. It would then give some perspective of how much the herd behavior may have been hurting. But we don't have that. Even with our Soviet colleagues, unfortunately, we have too much contact to have a display of real independence, to see where it would have led.

Transformation of Alfven waves and the effective propagation without dampening in loops and coronal heating is described in the Soviet literature by

Pickelner s And Liftshitz M 1964 Astron J 41 1887 (in Russian)
Pickelner S 1966 The principles of Cosmic Electrodynamics p 407(in Russian)

Just because it is not known or published in Western literature does not preclude the theory being less important then the “consensus’

Indeed the publications of the Royal society and in the US put cosmology down a blind alley for 30 years.

Or as American Scientist says

It appears that everybody is interested in cosmology. In one anthropological study, every one of the more than 60 separate cultures examined was found to have several common characteristics, including "faith healing, luck superstitions, propitiation of supernatural beings, … and a cosmology." Apparently, to be human is to care how the physical world came to be, whether it has boundaries and what is to become of it. Modern cosmology is a highly sophisticated subject funded by governments with hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It is unquestionably interesting, but is it, even in its modern guise, convincing?

The current Big Bang paradigm has it that the cosmos is expanding out of an initially dense state and that by looking outward into space, one can, thanks to the finite speed of light, look back to much earlier epochs. This understanding owes much to two accidents: astronomers' discovery of redshifts in the spectra of distant nebulae and the fortuitous detection of an omnipresent background of microwave noise, which is believed to be the remnant of radiation from a hot and distant past. Set in the theoretical framework of Einstein's general theory of relativity, such observations lead to a model that makes predictions and can thus be tested.

Of late, there has been much excitement over precision measurements of the cosmic background radiation and the discovery of very distant galaxies of great antiquity. There is even talk of a "concordance model" in which all of the observations come together to paint a coherent picture of how the universe must be constructed.

Alfven has some strong views on this

To Alfvén, the problems being raised were not surprising. "I have never thought that you could obtain the extremely clumpy, heterogeneous universe we have today, strongly affected by plasma processes, from the smooth, homogeneous one of the Big Bang, dominated by gravitation."

The problem with the Big Bang, Alfvén believed, is similar to that with Chapman's theories, which the scientific community accepted mistakenly for decades: Astrophysicists have tried too hard to extrapolate the origin of the universe from mathematical theories developed on the blackboard. The appeal of the Big Bang, said Alfvén, has been more ideological than scientific. When men think about the universe, there is always a conflict between the mythical approach and the empirical scientific approach. In myth, one tries to deduce how the gods must have created the world - what perfect principles must have been used."

To Alfvén, the Big Bang was a myth - a myth devised to explain creation. "I was there when Abbe Georges Lemaitre first proposed this theory," he recalled. Lemaitre was, at the time, both a member of the Catholic hierarchy and an accomplished scientist. He said in private that this theory was a way to reconcile science with St. Thomas Aquinas' theological dictum of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.


Blogger Erl said...

You are a breath of fresh air.

8:37 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Web Counters