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December 20, 2021 – Free Speech & Peace

In Galileo’s shadow: the importance of open-mindedness in science

In Galileo’s shadow: the importance of open-mindedness in science
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In Galileo’s shadow: the importance of open-mindedness in science

Science is revered for being objective and open-minded, influenced solely by experiments, the scientific method, and data, and not by ideology, bias, and personal interests.  The sociologist Thomas Merton famously captured this “ethos”: science, he said, is driven by the imperatives of disinterestedness, universalism, communalism, and organized skepticism.  

Most (and the best) scientists strive to achieve these Mertonian ideals in their training and practice, and this collective effort is an important attribute that explains much of the success of the scientific enterprise. Yet, scientists are human, and no human can perfectly achieve the Mertonian ideals. While scientific objectivity and open-mindedness have never been perfect, there are dangerous signs that many scientists in recent times are more dogmatic, ideological, and close-minded to new scientific ideas or concepts.  

Of course, science and scientists have always faced opposition to new theories from both within and outside science. Galileo, sometimes referred to as the father of the scientific method, was attacked by his contemporaries and the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church even imprisoned him for life for promoting Copernicus’s heretical (but true) theory that the earth circled the sun, rather than vice versa. Thomas Kuhn’s seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutionsdocumented how major scientific theories become ensconced as paradigms resistant to contrary evidence until there was so much discordance that the old paradigm finally collapses to be replaced by a new one. And Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist Max Planck famously quipped that “[a] scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Indeed, several major scientific breakthroughs, which would go on later to win Nobel Prizes, were initially rejected by the relevant scientific community.  For example, Barbara McClintock discovered “transposons” or jumping genes through a series of exquisite studies in the 1940s and 1950s, but due to a combination of the novelty of her discovery and the fact that she was one of few female scientists in her field, her research was met with, in her own words, “puzzlement, even hostility.” In fact, her research received so much scorn that she stopped publishing, and her innovation was not rediscovered until the 1960s and 1970s. McClintock was belatedly awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983, almost 40 years after her initial discovery.

McClintock was not the only Nobelist to have pioneering research rejected by the scientific community. Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s theory that ulcers were caused by the bacteriium H. Pylori rather than stress ran into a firestorm of scientific skepticism that was only overcome when Marshall downed a petri dish of H. Pylori — and developed an ulcer! Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005. Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his discovery of prions, suffered more than a decade of professional and personal attacks and scorn before his discovery was taken seriously by other scientists.  There are many other examples of innovative new scientific discoveries being initially rejected by the scientific community before eventually becoming accepted as valid. 

In recent years, especially with the growth of social media, science and scientists have been under siege from spurious claims that can only be described as junk science. There are numerous examples of such pseudo-scientific beliefs propelled by ideology and self-interest rather than scientific evidence that have achieved popular support, including anti-vaccination claims, anti-GMO beliefs, miracle cures, and denying that human activity has caused the planet to warm.

It is appropriate that scientists exercise prudent skepticism and conservatism in accepting radical new ideas, especially those that lack sound scientific footing. But there is a real risk that embattled scientists will go beyond prudent skepticism and reject legitimate, even if unconventional, scientific ideas. “Group think” can cause scientists to reject innovative or controversial new ideas, especially when they conflict with existing doctrinal, ideological, political, or economic interests.  

New ideas should be engaged, debated, and further studied by scientists, not summarily rejected on non-scientific grounds, with the scientists proposing such ideas being subjected to harsh professional and personal attacks.  

All the junk science being propagated on social media does necessitate prudent caution and skepticism by scientists, policymakers, and the media. But the Mertonian ideals of open-mindedness and disinteredness, which have made science so successful in contributing to social good, demand that we separate the wheat from the chaff, and give legitimate new scientific ideas that may not comport with our pre-conceived societal notions the serious consideration and respect they deserve.

Gary Marchant is a Regents Professor at Arizona State University.

This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Discovery. In this series we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on how openness drives human progress.