Thursday, June 03, 2004

Ah Yes, the Infernal "Scientific Elite"

Nothing quite like a good conspiracy theory to get one started in the morning, eh?

The upper echelons of the scientific community were yesterday accused of "usually being wrong" and guilty of "a systematic resistance to discovery", at the Guardian Hay book festival.

The attack came from Nigel Calder, author of Magic Universe: the Oxford guide to modern science, a tome weighing more than the latest Harry Potter book and shortlisted for the 2003 Aventis science book awards. Calder, whose swipe was a rare example of a science writer biting the hand that feeds him, was among the first journalists to work on New Scientist magazine when it was launched in the mid-1950s and went on to become its editor.


The accusations went further than simply knocking scientists' confidence in their understanding of the world, though. Calder said the use of peer review, where established scientists decide what research gets published, and the use of review panels that hold the purse strings of university research, were exclusive and had the effect of hindering rather than encouraging new discoveries.

"It amounts to a systematic resistance to discovery," he said. Such "self-appointed clubs that claim to be experts" supported the publication and funding of mainstream work, rather than innovative science.

He said scientists were wilfully resisting pursuing certain lines of inquiry because they could upset the balance of science research. "The vast number of scientists are not even trying to do research that could lead to a Nobel prize because they don't want to rock the boat."

In other words, maverick researchers, by making discoveries that undermine the work being pursued by the scientific elite, could cause ripples many at the top would rather not witness. "The top people may be toppled from their perches and people may lose their jobs," Calder said.
This rant by Mr. Calder scores very highly on John Baez' crackpot index - we have the standard dig at "self appointed" individuals with puffed up claims to "expertise", the false dichotomy between "mainstream" (i.e, "establishment") and "innovative" science, the accusations of elitism and exclusivity, the attack on peer review as some sort of conservative old-boys' club (one wonders just what mechanism Mr. Calder would propose for screening good research from trash) - about the only things missing here are outright denunciations of individuals as "jackbooted thugs" and references to "Einstien" or "Feynmann." Someone really ought to initiate the Grauniad's science correspondent into the mysteries of the world of psychoceramics, so that we may be spared future propagation of this sort of crackpottery as "news."