More About “Heresy” in Science

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When reading Andrea Bottaro's fine post of April 6 (titled Getting Away With "heresy") where he tells telltale stories about non-orthodox ideas taking hold in mainstream biology, it reminded me some stories that took place in my field. I am taking the liberty of telling here a story from my own past with a hope it will not be found inappropriate for this forum. I guess the name of Lev Landau is known to most of the readers of this blog. He was a very prominent theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate and a founder and a long-time leader of a group of outstanding theoretical physicists in Russia. His authority among physicists in the USSR was immense and undisputed. To argue against Dau (as he usually was referred to) one could only at one's peril. Every physicist viewed it an honor to be allowed to give a presentation at Landau's famous weekly seminar. If Landau approved the presentation it would immensely enhance the prestige of the presenter. On the other hand, if Landau disliked the thesis he would make mincemeat of the offender with a few very caustic and witty remarks. After being thus disparaged, the hapless offender had nowhere to appeal. There was in the USSR a professor of physics by the name of Pines who authored an authoritative book on X-rays technique. Once he submitted to Landau a paper which he wished to present at Landau's seminar. This paper was a theoretical treatise about Poisson coefficient. Poisson coefficient is the ratio between the relative transverse and longitudinal strains of a solid body. It had been a commonly accepted view that Poisson coefficient may have only positive values up to k=1/2. Positive value of k means that when a body is stretched along some axis, it shrinks in the transverse direction. (For example, this is stated in the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics). In fact, a thermodynamic analysis (which I performed in ‘69) shows that no law of physics forbids a negative value of k, so that k may in principle have values between -1 and +1/2 . Negative k means that a body, while being stretched along some axis, would simultaneously expand along the transverse direction. Such a behavior was, though, never observed, and to the best of my knowledge, the thermodynamic analysis I mentioned was never conducted before, so the common notion had been that k is always positive and not exceeding 1/2 . I have not read Pines's article so I don't know what his arguments were, except for the general idea - he suggested some theoretical consideration showing that solid bodies with a negative Poisson coefficient may exist. I could not read Pines's article for a simple reason - Landau derided Pines, and his article was never published and was nowhere to be found. Some of my colleagues who happened to witness the story, told that, having looked over Pines's article, Landau said, "You know, Pines, if you swap i and e in your name you get the only body in the world that expands sideways when stretching. " End of Pines's prestige and of his theory. Now jump to 1969. I had at that time a doctoral student Vitaly Balagurov. He was one of only four of my doctoral students (out of the total of 26) who failed to get the doctoral degree. (In 1970 Balagurov had to abandon his research because of family circumstances). In '69 he was conducting experiments with films of magnetic alloys deposited in strong magnetic fields. He was frustrated by the stubborn instability of the data he got while measuring stress in these films - which was the task I gave him. For a while I was very busy with some other research and kept postponing a review of his data. Finally I turned to his raw data and, to my amazement, realized that the alleged instability was caused by what seemed to be a bizarre effect - when the films were stretched along one of the axes, they seemed to expand in the transverse direction. It was hard to believe, so I set out to check the data and to find the glitch in measurements which surely must have been somewhere. Together with Balagurov, we conducted hundreds of measurements, modifying the set-ups, the conditions etc, and, after a long-long series of experiments (as far as I recall, it took a whole year) I came to the conclusion that it was a real effect - these films had a negative Poisson ratio! Of course everybody knew it was impossible - the great Landau himself said so a few years earlier and destroyed the poor Pines who dared to suggest otherwise. What could I do - to openly go against Landau and common knowledge? That was exactly what I did. I wrote an article (with Balagurov as a co-author) where not only described the experimental results but also dared to offer a model suggesting a mechanism for the observed bizarre phenomenon, and sent it to the prestigious journal of the Academy of Sciences - Fizika Tverdogo Tela (Physics of Solids). The submissions to this journal always are reviewed by at least two anonymous referees. It usually takes some time. What happened, neither Landau's prestige nor the "common knowledge" played a role - our article was published, and unusually soon - in less than two months. The "orthodox" scientific "establishment" was obviously more interested in the unusual results than in preserving prestige, orthodox views, or using the alleged mechanism of peer-review to kill unwanted data - all those malaises of science attributed to it by the ID crowd. In physics and biology alike - what counts is evidence, and that is what the ID champions have in a very short supply.

7 Comments

Any fair evaluation of the prevalence of dogmatism in science should go beyond the memorable occasions in which the establishment resisted the truth unfairly. It is also important to note the times when the establishment welcomed new ideas readily and even more important to take into account how often the establishment rightly repells false or crazy notions backed up by political or religious interests.

Paragraph separations are your friends.

I think Mark is of the opinion that people with short attention spans shouldn’t even bother with his writings. (Thinking about it, that may also explain why Dembski never answered his criticisms) :)

Sure, I accept the comment by ask - paragraphs separation would indeed be helpful. I’ll improve my behavior, promise! I wish I never got a stronger critique than the friendly comment by ask. Cheers, Mark

The “orthodox” scientific “establishment” was obviously more interested in the unusual results than in preserving prestige, orthodox views, or using the alleged mechanism of peer-review to kill unwanted data

That’s an interesting point - unusual results are just too enticing to pass up for a real scientist.

But what I want to know is, did you get rich off the discovery? (Or a little more seriously, did the discovery lead to any applications? Suddenly my entrepreneurial mind is buzzing.)

My own experience as a physics doctoral student was consistent with (if not as interesting or dramatic as) Professor Perakh’s, and as Professor Myers has remarked recently on his own blog: scientists care about the evidence, and most of us will rapidly re-align our ideas to correspond to the evidence. That’s because of why we became scientists in the first place: Generally speaking, we want to know how things work. If you show evidence that’s inconsistent with how we think things work, you’ve got our immediate and total attention. It’s only in fairly rare cases that you’ll find more attraction to an old idea than clearly contradictory evidence.

Physicists paid a LOT of attention to Pons and Fleischmann’s claims of cold fusion. Both cold fusion and ID are entirely bogus, but the difference between them, which is why scientists have paid different amounts of attention to both, is that cold fusion made clear claims of evidence, stated clear experimental methods that could lead immediately to independent verification, and suggested a mechanism which could be analyzed theoretically, leading to different tests.

ID, on the other hand, offers evidence which is pretty murky, has no experimental methods, and has a suggested mechanism designed to be unanalytic. Scientists ignore ID simply because it offers no reason not to ignore it.

It is also the case that the harder a science is, the more likely it is that you’ll see scientists willing to rapidly re-align their thinking, because the harder a science is, the clearer its evidence will be. A biologist will always be better able to evaluate claims of evidence of new phenomena better than an evolutionary psychologist, simply because the quality of evidence is so much higher.

Regarding cold fusion, this is a rather sad story. I was well acquainted with Fleishmann (bot not with Pons). In the seventies both myself and Fleishmann were members of the Council of the International Society of Electrochemistry and met in Zurich. Also, I twice came to Southhampton university where he was a professor and gave there presentations. Although my field or research was rather far from that of Fleishmann, so I can’t judge his achievements, we talked about some general points and he appeared well versed in electrochemistry and generally made a good impression as a knowledgeable scientist showing no mania of greatness. I still can’t figure out why and how he could have made such a stupid step as announcing an allegedly great discovery based on such a flimsy evidence. He has destroyed his credibility and seems to have disappeared - and this is very sad. Still, unlike ID-ists, he does not insist any more on any grandiose claims - so his behavior is way above that of ID crowd who ignore critique and continue pushing nonsense no matter what.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Perakh published on April 9, 2004 12:41 PM.

Response to John Calvert was the previous entry in this blog.

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