Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 9, 2010

“Scientists Don’t Like New Surprises” People Haven’t Met My Thesis Committee


This is going to be a quick post so I’m going to dispense with my normal subject headings. This idea that scientists don’t like surprises, or don’t like new things that challenge their sacred beliefs floats around the internet and popular culture a lot. The media delights in headlines that read, “Scientists are …” and insert any of the following: Baffled, Surprised, Astounded, Shocked, Clueless, Bewildered, Befuddled, Amazed. And many other adjectives that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

That’s the general media. Creationist folks and the intelligent designers also adore this because their literature tends along the “if scientists can’t explain this it’s proof that God did it.” You might be thinking, “Hey! That’s a straw man,” or “That’s not a fair characterization!” For you folks, I direct you to some recent postings:

From The Bible Is the Other Side blog:

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft made a starling discovery, there are active geysers at the south pole of little moon Enceladus! It had astronomers shaking their heads, how could a small dead moon be still be geologically active after 4.5 billion years? It should have been frozen out billions of years ago because of lack of bulk, they say. … It’s truly amazing on what has been discovered! While the Cassini mission has thrown secular theories a loop, it has provided a wealth of great information on confirming the Bible!

From The Institute for Creation Research:

Mosasaurs were marine reptiles with large jaws and big teeth. Their fossils have been found on every continent, including Antarctica. They grew longer than 40 feet, and although they had fearsome jaws that marked them as a formidable predator, scientists had until now assumed that they were only mediocre swimmers. … However, an in-depth study of the world’s best-preserved mosasaur–which contains soft tissues such as skin, external scales, branching bronchial tubes, intestinal contents, decayed hemoglobin, and retinal soft tissues–demonstrated that the evolution-inspired weak-swimmer idea was all wrong. Instead, mosasaurs had all the necessary “adaptations” for a “fully aquatic existence.” … It has now been determined that mosasaurs swam quite well. Their remains show no evidence of having transitioned from any kind of land reptile, and at least one of them contains still-soft tissues. They therefore look like they were created recently, in accordance with Genesis history.

From The Discovery Institute:

A new paper in Nature magazine again shows that what was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. … What was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. Which paradigm would have predicted this finding: unguided neo-Darwinian evolution, or intelligent design?

The reason I bring this up is that I recently had a meeting with my thesis committee. Five Ph.D. scientists, all tenured except one who is tenure-track, two having been in the field as faculty researchers for over four decades. One of them did what I un-derisively and respectfully refer to as a more primitive version of my thesis work for her own thesis in the late 1980s.

There were two main things I came away from my thesis committee meeting with other than fighting the urge to cry (okay, not really, but it was not a pleasant experience). The first was that I needed to better focus and define the project, which is only a little disconcerting being ostensibly 7 months from defending. The second was a major emphasis from my committee members on the need for me to point out what is NEW with my work and has not been done before. Direct questions from my committee were: “What are the new results?” “How is your database different?” “What papers will you be comparing to?” “What papers’ hypotheses will you be testing and refuting?” And again, “What are the new results?”

Here are five people who between them have been in their field for about 150 years, who are established Ph.D. scientists in the ivory tower of a Research I institution (except one who I think is Research II), and according to popular ideas should be wanting me to prove that everything they’ve done in the past is right.

Instead, almost all they wanted to know was what am I doing that’s different and new and will “shake up” the field.

Amazing how people who have never actually been in the field they talk about end up characterizing it as the opposite.

Edited to Add:

After going to sleep after writing this post, I wanted to mention two more quick things that are related but obviously weren’t mentioned by my thesis committee. First, in order to publish in science, you pretty much always have to have something new. A paper review I got back a few months ago complained that it shouldn’t be published because it “presents little that is new.” Academia is pretty much publish or perish.

Second, the same thing goes for funding. While duplication of previous results, or duplication to place more stringent constraints on older results is important, funding committees have strong reservations in funding pure duplication research. This will vary significantly across disciplines, however, so it is a somewhat weaker argument to counter those who think “Scientists Hate Surprises.” For example, in the medical field, duplication is very important, especially clinically and in the pharmaceutical industry. But in my own field, you almost cannot get a grant if even a little of what you propose is duplication. Again from my own experience, I had a grant proposal in 2 years ago where about 5-10% of what I was going to do was duplication. Part of the reason it was rejected was they latched on that and said if someone else is already doing it, they’re not going to pay for it twice.

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